I recently watched a bootleg copy of Avatar, a few months after you all I’m sure. I’ve always been a fan of sci-fi fantasy, uncomfortable questions and morals set within a larger scene. We sit entertained by these new worlds and their dilemmas only to realize they’re our own. Watching Avatar felt particularly poignant from Moshi.
In this movie, humans participate in the society of another world, but not fully as themselves. They create hybrid creatures – physically like the other mentally as themselves. They spend their days amongst the indigenous until night when their minds return to their human bodies. I wonder if this absurd idea is my daily life. By day, I wear kitenge and kanga, eat ugali and mchicha, sloppily attempt to speak Kiswahili. By night, I sit in the comfort of my very nice home spinning in my reflections until I sleep cloaked in the inevitable securities of financial stability, health insurance, and a college education. In the film, the hero’s success at cultural immersion leads to his full acceptance and eventual transformation to be fully one of the others. I wonder if this is possible outside of this scrip. I wonder if that is what I truly desire.
Living within another culture for this long has become a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, I deeply desire to sink in here, to know and embrace the style of life that Tanzania offers. On the other hand, two years makes me more than a mere visitor. As a participant rather than an observer, I bring myself – my personality, my background, my needs. I therefore bring my culture. Not having spent much time out of the melting pot of America, I never quite realized that I possess culture. Although I still can’t outline its tenants, I feel my culture. I feel that part of me that is different, that part of me that is so grounded elsewhere that no sci-fi transformation could allow me to be here fully.
These thoughts originally carried guilt. Am I so single-minded, so culturally inept that I fail at immersing fully into Tanzania? I’ve come to view this less as failure and simply a realization - a realization that I carry my past with me, a past that is American. I am more than a guest here, but I will never be Tanzanian – and that middle ground is difficult to navigate. While I’d like to maintain my cosmopolitan views as naïve as they may be, I now acknowledge how real culture is; I believe the injustice that borders cause is brutal and unnecessary, but I’m beginning to understand how and why borders are formed.
This movie also presents the age old tale of the outsider protecting the local population, the conquistador saving the indigenous, the educated enlightening the inferior. While it highlights that the society possesses an immense knowledge of the land superior to the oppressors, their survival ultimately depends upon a good-hearted oppressor. I find this epic story increasingly uncomfortable. It lacks such trust. But to deny it wholly is to be hypocritical, to philosophize myself out of a career path. I am passionate about international justice, but does respecting the people’s abilities call me to be a passive supporter of their struggle so as to prevent my becoming a modern conquistador? Somehow these questions hurt less during my other times abroad in Latin America. Perhaps that is because those times were so limited, the people less known, myself more naïve. Or perhaps it is because Mexico and Ecuador are at different places in their historical evolution. Tanzania, Africa at large, maintains independence as a fresh memory. The country is developing rather than seeking change (what I used to perceive as synonyms). In Mexico, I felt invited to spur social change beside the people. Here, however, I understand people’s discontent with foreign assistance – of all types. When America was born, England didn’t hold her hand and give her a patronizing slap on the back. Granted the founders were of British descent, but the evolution of the state post-independence was internal (history majors feel free to correct me). I can only imagine I, with my strong personal sense of independence, would desire the same if I were to be among the people developing a new nation. So, I feel for Africa. I feel for these newly emerging countries chalk full of good-hearted conquistadors from abroad, myself included. I will forever question my role in this grey haze of development – to simultaneously deny both my apathy and my impatient yearning to enforce change.
Nothing like a little sci-fi to stir the mind.