Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Messenger and the Fourth

Happy 4th of July! It's now the 5th of July here, but most of you who read this are probably just going to sleep with fully bellies and sun-burned faces.

I've had some good reminders of home recently. The first: Two nights ago (Tanzania time) the stars aligned and Kiana was able to call my cell phone via Skype. It was a clear night and I was able to see The Big Dipper, the seven star constellation that, with the North Star, adorns the Alaskan flag. We Alaskan ex-pats tend to be more than a little patriotic for our homeland, and seeing The Bear up there filled me with warm feelings as I thought of family, friends, and a wife on the other side of the world. It was still late morning in Seattle, so I told Kiana to keep an eye out because I was sending our friend The Dipper over to say hello from me. That night in Seattle was clear (a rare occasion), and Kiana returned home from a late night at work to see our friend hanging in the sky above our apartment.

Another reminder of home: American food. Now, usually when I travel abroad I make it a point to avoid American food, not so much out of snobbery (well, not anymore), but simply because I enjoy attempting to assimilate to the culture as much as possible. I made an exception for the 4th of July. Nich (my roommate) and I decided to cook an American meal for our host family. But what to make? All my favorite foods come from other places: boiled potatoes and fish, Thai red curry, pasta, burritos. We settled on hamburgers. Locating ground beef in Tanzania is a bit challenging, but we eventually found a European-run deli in Arusha. (Dog meat was also available, although I'm not sure for whom, since Tanzanians don't eat dog.) Of course we couldn't find hamburger buns, but we did find some dinner rolls with sesame seeds on top, and even some imported New Zealand cheddar. Tanzanians in this part of the country don't use a lot of spices, so I mixed up the meat with egg, a bit of bread, and garam masala (potentially the world's first Indian hamburger served in Tanzania). The nanny made chips (the term the rest of the world uses for French fries), and our host brother procured a bottle of Heinz ketchup (made in Holland and imported from somewhere in the Arab world). The burgers turned out rather tasty, I thought, and the family seemed to enjoy them well enough. I'd have no idea if they didn't, since not taking seconds in this culture is about the rudest thing you can do, but hardly anyone ate the back-up meal the housekeeper had prepared.

There was a big dance with a live band after dinner. It was actually for a TCDC class that was graduating, but we Americans took advantage of the coincidence and drank some toasts to the good old US of A with Kilimanjaro lager and Konyage gin.

My friend from Seattle, Phil Woodward, asks whether I'm proud or ashamed to be an American as I celebrate the 4th in Tanzania. It's a good question. There's another group of Americans studying Kiswahili here at TCDC, Fulbright fellows, all African studies majors and other varieties of Humanities undergrad and grad students. In contrast to the EWH kids, many of them are extremely left-leaning, some of them vocally decrying celebration of the 4th of July (anywhere, but especially in Tanzania). They're having some internal difficulties as the more staunch among them accuse others of cultural insensitivity and inappropriate behavior. Coming from Seattle, I know more than a few folks like these hard-liners. Recently I've even found myself prone to adopt such a self-deprecating attitude, openly denigrating whites in general and Americans in particular. This particular evening, however, I was proud to be an American, and I felt no shame in celebrating a proud day for my culture. In light of recent experiences, conversations, and readings (especially Paul Farmer), I am becoming more convinced that liberal piety does not guarantee execution of social justice, and may in fact easily take the place of action. I can't change the fact that I'm white, or a man, or an American. I am not proud of many things that my country has done and is currently doing to oppress the poor of the world. But it is precisely because I was born in America that I have had the opportunity to learn science, to do research, and to travel to the other side of the world and attempt to carry out the sort of foreign policy that I wish my government would choose to spend its efforts on. It would be just as ridiculous to pretend not to come from America as it would be reprehensible to hide there and pretend that the rest of the world doesn't exist.

I'm becoming rather fond of the saying "The only true country is humanity". It's a big planet, but it's starting to seem smaller as I get to know more of my fellow earthlings.

Coming home from the dance, I saw The Big Dipper again, back from his visit to The West. He said "hi" from all of you.

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