African American in Africa: Michelle in Tanzania
Meet Michelle who decided to make beautiful Moshi, Tanzania her home after first visiting in 2011. Michelle's passion for natural medicine is empowering local communities across the African continent. She shares her experiences of work and life in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo below.
Hi! Introduce yourself!
My name is Michelle and I’m originally from Jamaica! My family immigrated to the United States when I was twelve. I got my U.S. citizenship about twelve years ago, so I’m technically an African American. :)
Where in Tanzania do you live?
I currently live in Moshi,Tanzania, but lately I spend most of my time on the road teaching homeopathy, mentoring local homeopaths or starting clinics.
When did you first visit the African continent and what were your first impressions?
I first visited in August of 2011 and instantly felt at home. Something about Tanzania reminded me of the Jamaica of the 1970’s of my childhood, so I felt an immediate affinity to being here.
How long have you been living in Tanzania and how long do you plan to stay there?
This is my second year of long-term stay in Tanzania. The first year (2012 to 2013) I stayed for seven months. This year I’ve stayed for eight months and my future plans are to continue to stay for long periods of time.
How did you end up in Tanzania and what are you doing there professionally?
I first came to Africa in 2011 as a month-long homeopath volunteer with a homeopathic organization in Tanzania that was doing data collection on people with HIV/AIDS and malaria and how homeopathy was helping to restore their health.
I came back the following year and spent seven more months. I totally fell in love with Tanzania and knew I wanted to stay and continue working here, but not really in my capacity as a volunteer and volunteer coordinator on the ground. I wanted to make a different impact and this is how my organization, Zuri Medicine, was born.
I wanted to help local Africans who were already homeopaths or who wanted to become homeopaths expand their knowledge through a mentor-ship consultation program and expand their clinics to have a good client base so homeopathy could be a viable part of their communities. I've taught acute care courses in homeopathy in Uganda and Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), helped to open a clinic in the DRC, and provided mentor-ship in several parts of Kenya. I travel from country to country and small village to small village, treating people who are sick, assisting local homeopathic clinics and mentoring along the way. It's very rewarding to see people who have been sick restored to health and to know that its someone from their own community who helped them. I've mostly used my own savings to do this work, along with some sponsorship from friends.
Can you tell us a little about homeopathy? what's it like to work in this field in east Africa?
Homeopathy is a form of natural medicine that looks at all the symptoms, (physical, emotional and mental) a person is suffering from to find a medicine or remedy to assist the immune system in fighting off diseases naturally by itself. (This is a shortened explanation that most people can understand but homeopathy is a bit more complex than this.)
Working in east Africa as a homeopath is very rewarding. People here are used to traditional medicine so they accept and understand homeopathy in a way that Westerners have a hard time doing.
Can you describe your immigration experience? Can you share any advice for potential expats?
Tanzanian immigration is not the easiest to navigate. There is a LOT of paperwork and waiting. Although I got my volunteer visa through the organization that I first came here to work with I spent many days going back and forth to immigration to fill out paperwork, and asking questions to see if I had filled in ALL the papers needed and with the correct information they were looking for. It took about three months for the visa to actually come back and the only time frame I was given was, 'soon'. My advice to a potential foreigner is to have patience. There is a saying here, “Westerners have the watch, but Africans have the time”. As with anything you are doing here you just have to learn how to be patient and wait.
What's life like in Tanzania for you?
Life in Tanzania is really good. I've built some strong relationships with other expats and locals alike. People here are really accepting and being a black foreigner gives you the advantage of seeing their world from both sides. The locals accept you as one of them and there is a strong expat community that helps to make you feel at home when you start missing American life. At nights I enjoy a quiet life at home with a glass of wine, after an exhaustive work life during the day.
There are lots of opportunities to get together with friends and sometimes I take full advantage of that. Dancing on Friday nights is a must for me to shake off the work week and get into the mindset of the weekend.
What do you love the most about living in Tanzania?
The weather - It's hot! At least most of the time (LOL). I know this is probably an unexpected response, but I suffer from a connective tissue disorder which means my joints are constantly inflamed. I’ve used homeopathy for years so I’m generally relatively pain-free. However, living in the mountains of Connecticut where the winters could be brutal even for people in the best of health, I used to feel the cold in my joints a lot. Here I don’t have that issue. I also visit the U.S. in May, when the weather is warming up there but starting to get cold in Moshi. Yes, there is a kind of winter in Moshi too where it's cool enough that people are wearing jackets!
I also love the diversity of the languages spoken. Although the official language in Tanzania is Kiswahili, there are many different local languages spoken. People call these local dialects their 'mother tongue'. My job as a homeopath requires me to listen to people's stories all day and so I have to work with translators. Imagine working in a Massai community with two translators, one translating from English to Kiswahili to another who translates from Kiswahili to Kimaasai, and then the reverse order. Even though I don’t know the languages, listening to my questions transformed across so many tongues is really fascinating to me.
What have been the easiest things to adjust to in Moshi, Tanzania?
The people – everybody is friendly and helpful here. I’ve been to places where I didn’t know the area and people have taken me by the hand around to shops and other places that I was trying to find all the while chatting to me like I was an old friend. There seems to be an ideology that everyone must be his brother’s keeper or something. I don’t know if it’s just the natural disposition of east African people, but here they really go out of their way to help you.
What have been the most difficult things to adjust to?
The fluctuating prices of goods. Bargaining is just part of the culture. I like to shop around to get an idea of what prices are like before buying something, especially for a high ticket item, but prices here are never consistent.
One advantage of being African American is that I blend in. When I first walk into a shop if I just point at something indicating that I want to know the price I get one reaction, but the minute I open my mouth and they see my Swahili isn’t strong they realize that I'm a foreigner and charge me a higher price. I do understand it's in the spirit of bargaining but bargaining is something I am not good at and so it tends to annoy me.
In another instance, when I went to buy a new bed, I spent two days going around looking at styles and the construction to find something I liked that had good craftsmanship. I decided on one particular bed and was given a price I thought was fair for the quality of the bed. When I went back only two days later the price had risen by another 30 USD! To readers that probably doesn’t sound like much, but for living here in Tanzania that’s a lot of money, and especially when you came prepared with what you thought was the exact amount. That’s the unpredictability of pricing here. It can be a bit tricky if you’re used to shopping around. Sometimes you just have to be prepared to buy on the spot.
Greeting has also been difficult to adjust to. Greetings here can take up to five minutes or more. People ask about you, your spouse, your children, your parents, your grandparents, your animals, your farm... any and everything they can think of. Although it's nice and a great way to get to know someone I still maintain some of the New Yorker in me (this is where my family immigrated to in the U.S.), and sometimes I just want to ask a question and go. But here, that is seen as being extremely rude and sometimes people will ignore you as if you’re invisible for not greeting them. I’ve gotten in trouble for it more than once. There was one day that I went into a shop and went right into asking my question and the old man behind the counter looked me right in the eye and said “Say shikamo baba to me” (this is the respectful way of greeting old people here). Now I remind myself that even when I’m in a hurry, I need to stop and say at least some of the greetings first.
Your work takes you traveling around the African continent. What safety concerns have you faced, if any?
In most places where I’ve worked there have been very little safety concerns, although I am aware of the U.S. security warnings. In Uganda my biggest safety issues were with the motorcycle drivers as I would refuse to pay when I felt they were cheating me and consequently many arguments ensued, but those were just personal matters and not nationwide issues.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo there is just rampant lawlessness. In the area I stayed in, I was told of many people who had been garroted at night and so there were explicit instructions from my host about the time of night I should be inside and about not being out and about by myself. Once on a bus back to the village I was staying in, a fight broke out. A woman and other people were getting beaten, a man was getting choked and the bus driver just kept driving as though this was everyday normal life. Maybe it was for the people on the bus but I think that is the most frightened I’ve been since being here.
What's your social life like in Tanzania?
My social life here is good. There is dancing at the local outdoor club every weekend that I take full advantage of. There is a place where most expats hang out every Saturday for great Western-like food, swimming and socializing, named Melinda’s. Meeting up with friends for coffee or at a bar to watch a soccer game for the evening is a regular part of the social fabric of Moshi.
Many parents have questions about what impact moving their children to the continent would have, especially on their education. Can you offer them any insight? Although I have no personal experience with schooling my children here as financially I could not afford to relocate my family from the U.S., what I’ve seen many expats do is enroll their children in the International School here, but it's private and you have to pay big bucks. Most people say the kids get a good education and when I investigated the school with the thought of my son coming to live here with me, the curriculum seemed rigorous and the standards seemed high, so it's possible to get a good education living here.
Can you share a few details on the cost of living in your Tanzanian community?
I live in one of the more expensive areas of town and there are mostly expats in the area, so the cost is a bit high for rent. Rent in this area can run anywhere from $150 to $500 a month and what surprised me the most is that landlords ask for six months to one year of the money up front!
Groceries at the larger supermarket here are a little pricey but I do purchase stuff like cheese, butter and wine there, those little things that make you feel more like back home. At the market I can spend about $15 to $20 and get enough food to last over a week. This includes meats, veggies, rice, fruits, milk and treats.
The utilities are the least of my bills. They range from about $20 to $30 monthly. And local transportation by bus, motorcycle and taxi run anywhere from $1 to $3 per trip.
Did you always dream of living abroad?
This is a tough question for me. I’ve always dreamed of traveling. When I was a kid I wanted to work for an airline so I could travel. After moving to the U.S. my family moved to a new neighborhood every year, and I remember coming home from college one year and not being able to find my house as my mom had moved to a town that I was unfamiliar with. Even in my adult life when I was married, my husband and I relocated to different parts of the U.S., and I often spoke about moving our family overseas. I’ve always loved constant change, meeting new people, making new friends and seeing something different. So although I can't say I’ve always dreamed of living abroad, whether that change took the form of living in a different neighborhood or a different country, I can honestly say that I’ve never been perturbed by unfamiliarity and have always found a way to make my own way.
What's your best advice for someone who wants to move to the African continent?
Do it! Don’t think too heavily about it, don’t weigh pros and cons because you will always come out with cons. Just DO IT! When I decided to come here both family and friends asked if I was nuts. One friend said to me, “people are moving TO America and you’re moving OUT”? However, after my first trip in 2011 I knew I wanted to come back. And when the opportunity presented itself to me, I sold my house, gave everything away, packed up the few things I wanted to keep in a box, stored them under my ex-husbands bed and left. My only regret is that I am not a daily presence in my children’s lives but no matter where in the world I am they know to expect my call EVERY Saturday. (My kids range in ages from 20, 18, 15 and 12 so they’re not so young, but still!) With great family support living abroad has been possible for me. You just have to be flexible and know that what you've grown up with is not the only perspective, so be open to seeing and doing new things.
Do you think enough African Americans and West Indians visit Africa? Why is it an important trip?
I think most African Americans don’t make the trip here, while on the other hand a lot of West Indians did follow the repatriation movement and went to Ethiopia and more and more come every year. Last year while in Ethiopia, I had the pleasure of speaking with a lot of West Indians who said although there were many struggles it was the best move they had made.
In most of my American friends' minds I live in a hut out in the bush somewhere fighting lions and hyenas for my daily meal. When I Skype with most of my friends and give them a tour of where I live say they didn't imagine that my community here would look like a normal neighborhood. I think most people have a narrow image in mind about Africa and if they came here they would be amazed at the culture and beauty across the continent.
I once worked in a village and after chatting with a local man for a while he told me he was going to go home and write in his journal about having met me that day. When I asked why, he said I was the first Black American he had ever met and thought maybe Black Americans were just something made up on TV. I laughed, but it wasn’t funny.
When I hear my friends planning trips to Vegas or Florida I just think how much more rewarding it would be to come here and experience the diversity of African life. Engaging with people of color, seeing their struggle and watching them thrive is a beautiful and thought-provoking thing. Walking around and being yourself among a majority of people who look like you gives you the freedom to be comfortable in your own skin. This trip is important not only for the ancestral thoughts and memories it provokes in you but also for the beauty, love and acceptance of self that comes from interacting with so many people like you but are outside of your own struggles. It also gives you a broader perspective and the means to accept people on their own terms because you have heard their stories and participated in their way of life.
What has living in Africa taught you? How has it changed you?
Its taught me resourcefulness and acceptance of other people and their struggles. Its taught me to be less self-focused and to understand what it means to be a part of a tribe - people helping people and giving of myself more fully without so many first world ulterior motives and so much more. I feel like I can only list the many things living here has taught me as I can't find a way to put it into a cohesive sentence.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
As a mother without her kids geographically nearby, my life here is not always easy. I spent March of this year in a small village outside Bukavu, DRC and there was no internet service, so no Saturday calls for me. Normally I can handle that but as an absent parent, weekly communication with my kids to catch up on what they are doing is vital to me. It's the small things that count when you're this far from your family.
Is there somewhere we can follow your experience?
I have a blog that hasn’t been updated in a while as I’m usually very busy, but I’ve recently made my Facebook page public so if you’d like to, you can follow me there. Search Michelle Pickering homeopath and I’ll pop right up.