So How Was It? Explaining a Life-changing Trip

Upon my return to campus this fall, I received all the typical post-study abroad questions, the majority of which were: How was Africa?

My first reaction was that I didn’t actually go to Africa – I went to Tanzania. But finding someone who could identify the Tanzanian coast along the Indian Ocean was evidently a tall order. I chalked this unawareness up to a gross lack of education about African culture and realized that in telling about my study abroad experience, I had a chance to give authentic, first-hand information about east Africa.

But, in spite of this fantastic opportunity to educate and inform, I found myself conflicted as I searched for the words:

How could I condense an entire month of life-changing experiences into mere sentences?

How could I summarize an entire culture, an entire lifestyle, climate and language?

And even then, how could I articulate what I saw and learned in terms to which my peers could connect?

I thought back to the stifling heat, the beautiful and malnourished children we worked with, the joy and frustration of trying to express myself in Swahili, the easy walks to and from my village and the market… I thought of missing home, of getting sick when I was a continent away from my mom, the moments when I felt infinite and the moments when I wished I could melt away into my simple and effortless life in the States.

My friends stood there as I contemplated a tsunami of thought and feeling, lost in nostalgia and reflection as they waited for my stock answer, the one I always gave:

“It was great! I spoke a lot of Swahili and worked with adorable kids. I had so much fun,” I said as they asked me in the middle of the Diag, the first week of school upon us now.

With each false telling, the words left an unsavory and guilty taste in my mouth, the feelings and truths I glossed over burning brighter and brighter in my memory – the things that truly mattered… the ways that my world-view became more holistic and compassionate and selfless and how my life goals were forever altered.

The truth begged to be told, but I had no idea how even to begin. My friends – the ones who fantasize about dating the handsome stranger in chemistry class, and spend weekends tailgating for football games and writing English essays; how could they possibly understand? My friends, the beautiful and sweet people that they are, asked me with all the best intentions: How was Africa?

And in my head, I screamed: I cried for the infants I fed whose mothers had died in labor and the way their malnourished bellies made my stomach sick with guilt and anger, and I wept for the fact that men in traditional cultures still think it’s okay to harass women and that my white skin made me somehow more important than locals because whiteness equates to goodness for so many in this world. I wept, I wept, I wept; but truly, I lived.

And as those words clamored in my head, all that I said was: “It was such a great experience. Tough, but amazing.”

Telling of my trip is hard. There is no way to comprehend it, and, as I attempt to piece it all together 4 months later, I share less and less of my actual experience. For now, I have settled on this: Wherever you go, you will not come back the same as when you left.

— Britt Boyle

Tips and Tricks for Host-Family Living

You survive the eight (plus) hour plane ride, you give the customs officer your best smile and get your passport stamped, then you somehow find your way to your group/professor/team in a foreign airport; the logistics alone of a study abroad can be daunting to say the least. Add a host-family set-up to the mix and it’s downright terrifying. Not only are you practicing a language that you know very little of, but you’re trying to personalize and adapt to your new living conditions respectfully with your limited vocabulary. Factor in the aspect of actually getting along with your family and you can see that it’s a fragile set-up.

In spite of these challenges, the benefits have been proven time and time again; students of a foreign language learn best when immersed in conversation with native speakers. Thus, living with a host family (for any amount of time) is a huge advantage in learning a new language. As a student of both German and Swahili, I have had the privilege of living with two families – one in a suburban town in northern Bavaria (a region of Germany) called Bad Neustadt an der Saale, the other in a modest village in the Tanga region of Tanzania called Lushoto – to practice my language skills.

Considering how similar my German home was to my American home in suburban Michigan, I am going to focus on my home-stay in Lushoto, Tanzania. Living with my host-family there in East Africa was an experience which I think provided me the greatest linguistic improvement for such a short span of time, especially considering that I had only taken two years of Swahili prior to my visit, in comparison to five years of German before my home-stay in Bad Neustadt.

On the day I arrived at my host-home in Lushoto, I wrote the following: “We pulled into a narrow road, lined with street-vendors and small shops and then turned into a court-like opening where a gaggle of neighborhood children were playing soccer. As soon as the bus pulled up, the children noticed it was stuffed with “wazungu” (white people in Swahili), they came rushing to the bus in a frenzy… I cannot recall a time when I was so nervous or so out of my comfort zone as that moment, standing on the porch and saying goodbye to Mama (our professor), Alfred (our tour guide), and Esther (our Swahili teacher)…”

I consider myself an exceptionally outgoing person. Seldom do I hesitate to approach someone with a question, concern, or even a compliment, and I have often been described as “too talkative” and thus “distracting” throughout my schooling career. Even with these tendencies, stepping into my host-home in Lushoto for the first time rendered me speechless. That’s simply the effect of living in a host-home: you are automatically the guest, the “other” – the cultural specimen. Now you represent yourself, your university – and in your host-family’s eyes – your country. Everything is new from the toilets to the kitchen to the electricity (or lack thereof) and even the chickens clucking around in the backyard. It’s all new and you must navigate this new space with grace and gratitude. It’s a tall-order for the student, who is probably only 19 or 20 years old. So in order to make this experience just that much smoother, here are my tips, tricks and insights into how best to navigate a foreign host-home.

  1. They don’t expect you to be a genius – Especially as Americans who “typically” spend little time learning foreign languages, your host-family will not expect you to be giving a dissertation in their native language. In my experience, my family was thrilled when I could string together even the most basic of sentences, boiling down complex situations into generalizations such as: “Most people…”; “Typically…”; “I like…” etc. Even just throwing out vocabulary like “table,” “education” or “sibling” (or asking about such words) will impress your host family and give them hope that Americans do, in fact, take the time to learn foreign languages.
  2. Hook onto the essentials – There will be words and phrases that are crucial that you nail down. For example, knowing how to ask for directions, telling time, and asking where the bathroom is. After a few days living with my host family, I still hadn’t showered. One aspect of this issue was that I didn’t think I needed one yet; the other was that I didn’t know what the word for shower was. When my host mom asked if I wanted to shower later that day, I gave an enthusiastic “ndiyo” (yes) and made a mental note of the verb “to shower”: kuoga. As an added benefit, I have not since forgotten that word, as it was so crucial to my life in Tanzania.
  3. Charades go a long way – In the episode of communicating my need for a shower, my host mom illustrated the otherwise unknown verb, “kuoga,” with vigorous scrubbing and imaginary water streaming from the space above her. Her movements made the question clear – “Do you want to shower?” Taking a cue from my host mom, don’t be afraid to add a little jig or some hand-motions to your conversation – you might feel silly, but you’ll be better understood and maybe even become closer to your host-family on account of your tom-foolery.

All in all, living with a host family during your time abroad is a sure-fire way to get the most linguistic improvement out of your study abroad. 10/10 would recommend. “Asante, kwa herini!” Thank you, goodbye all!

— Britt Boyle