Travels

 

Providence

Back in San Francisco, I used to follow the “Free Will Astrology” column of a wacky hippie astrologer named Rob Brezsny. His theory is that the universe is constantly conspiring to shower us with blessings. Thousands of things go right for us every day, from the moment you wake up and you’re still breathing and your heart is beating, though we generally tend to acknowledge the few things that don’t.

From that perspective, I guess I am a bit of a conspiracy theorist myself. Several months ago, I decided somewhat randomly that I would do my thesis project on the impact of fair trade on tea-producing communities in Tanzania. Not random, in that fair trade (a system that aims to ensure a decent living for farmers and workers in developing countries, among other things) had become my self-made concentration, a natural marriage of my degrees-to-be in international development and business. Random in that I simply chose Tanzania for being in a region I hadn’t yet explored, wouldn’t be too hot in summer, had wildlife to see and Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain, to climb.

So I made my plans and booked my ticket thinking I would have to wing it, finding my own way around, forging my own contacts, and doing God knows what for a Kiswahili translator. While poking around for information online, I stumbled onto TechnoServe, an NGO that uses business solutions to alleviate rural poverty in developing countries. The organization just happened to have an ongoing project to help the tea sector, particularly small farmers, in Tanzania become more profitable & competitive, fair trade being one possible avenue, and offered to help sponsor my trip.

And so now here I am at the Protea Hotel, swimming laps in the hotel pool under a star-sprinkled sky, instead of the sketchy hostel where I’d likely be were I on my own budget. Half my background research has been neatly handed over to me, contacts already lined up in the industry, all in-country expenses paid for and logistics organized, my own office space with internet access, an easygoing fellow consultant to pal around with and a local counterpart to coordinate my field research, including translation. Luck, coincidence? I would like to think that perhaps God really does have a plan for me, as the sidewalk prophets handing me pamphlets keep telling me.

Of course, it’s easy to believe the universe has benevolent intentions when you are the one person out of 100 on this Earth who enjoys the level of education, health, income, and overall security and well-being that most of us do. Most Tanzanians live on less than a dollar a day, the rather arbitrary UN standard for extreme poverty. One in ten Tanzanians has AIDS (count how many people you know, then imagine 10% of them being HIV+); four out of five deaths of young adults are attributed to the virus. Life expectancy is less than 50. One out of three girls will never learn to write their own name. Yet as in many trying places, most Tanzanians I have met are true believers, whether Muslim or Christian, and that means believing in their fate. As difficult as their lives are, people seem to take solace in the thought that their plight is somehow the path God chose for them, that their suffering and hardship is all for some higher spiritual purpose or that they will be rewarded for their faith and endurance later.

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