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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