As some of you may or may not already know, I would like to consider myself a conisseur of laughter. It is truly one of my biggest passions in life, and something I take very seriously (or as seriously as one possibly can). Much like a well versed Napa Valley resident with wine, I viewed Laughter through a pretensious understanding. I also had an innate desire for perfection: not necessarily an active quest to find the perfect laugh, but just an open desire to be part of a truly joyous environment or moment. Where the laughter came from pure unadulterated joy, and nothing more. Where laughter is not only a way of expressing joy, but a way of freeing yourself. While I can’t necessarily say I actively searched for a place or moment like what I just described, it was something I still longed for.
Little did I know that I would find exactly what I was hoping for in the town of Songea, located in southern Tanzania.
I went into my journey to Africa with the understanding that it would probably change me. I had a feeling it would affect my entire worldview. I had a feeling my perceptions of poverty, spirituality, and American Life would completely change. And those predictions definitely rang true. What I did not expect was how it would change my perception of Comedy, Humor, and Laughter itself.
All of these changing perceptions can be attributed to cultural differences. And there are many. In America, emotion is often conserved. Its certainly shown and displayed, but not without abandon. People often think before they feel. The laughter expressed is certainly loud and expressive, but it may not always be in full force. Not all of it may be fully realeased. This comes from a sense of fear of embarassment. Particularly with American Males, there is a great deal of fear in being emotional. These attributes aren’t bad neccessarily. Rather, they were a telling contrast from what I was about to experience.
Tanzania on the other hand was a completely different revelation, both culturally and emotionally. Their world is louder than ours (or at least, suburban Washington State’s). Every person I met that had a cell phone had their ring tone on at all times. The sound of various Bossa Novas and Elevator Muzak would emanate throughout the public places and markets. I feel like this in particular represents a prime analogy between Tanzanian and American culture: While they are a Ringtone Culture, we are most often a Vibrate one. While we still definitely carry phones and use them, it is a much quieter affair. We might step outside, or even just turn it off for awhile. Tanzania, it is a much more grandiose gesture to answer a phone, almost a dance. They are not afraid to express themselves there, and anyone that has driven on Tanzanian roads for any amount of time will attest to this also. Tanzanian people are fluent in two languages: Swahili, and Car Horn. The 16 hour bus ride from Dar Es Salaam to Songea was an orchestral piece of ringing horns and a looping Music CD highlighted by Enrique Iglesias irreplaceable power ballad “Hero”. This was a culture that was not afraid to express itself (and was also apparently a pretty big fan of Enrique Iglesias.)
What was just as astounding as the dearth of emotion I and our team of 17 Americans saw while on the trip was its purity as well. The laughter that we all shared is a memory I will forever hold dear. It wasn’t just loud, it was powerful. You could feel every emotion in that laughter. There were no reservations in it. Every ounce of your body was dedicated to laughing; there was no other thought.
I often thought about why that could be. Why the laughter and emotion there was so pure and joyful. I initially thought it could be attributed to the lack of quality to Tanzanian Media. We were fortunate on our bus ride home (and I mean fortunate in that Masochistic kind of way) to watch four original Tanzinian films. Without going into too much detail, I will say they made Tommy Wiseau look like Woody Allen. I thought maybe because of this quality, they had to go inward to find their laughter, their humor, and just emotion in general.
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how completely pointless and stupid it was to think about where it came from at all. As I said earlier, thats not what you did in Tanzania. You didn’t think you just felt. And as the trip went on, our group of 17 took on this sort of understanding as well. Our joy and our laughter as a group just grew. From exuberantly singing the intro to Hero as it continued to permeate our bus ride (The rough average for hearing “Hero” to drive time was about 1.5 “Hero”‘s per hour. Without stops or breaks, a drive from Dar Es Salaam to Songea would take about 18 or 19 “Hero”‘s), to screaming Swahili greetings (MAMBO!) at people on the street as we drove and walked by, desperately hoping for a response (POA!). It was about 60-40 on getting a vocal response, or just getting stared at weirdly. Those times were some of the most joyful I’ve ever had, asnd they further accentuated the cultural differences: I can’t imagine a bunch of foriegn people coming to America and screaming “HELLO” at people in english would go over particularly well, if at all. It was a nirvana of joy and fun, something I’ll never forget.
But what made all of this even more astounding was the condition that most of the people we encountered lived in. Hearing the stories of the kids at the Songea Womens and Childrens Care Organization was were all gut wrenching. An encounter with a woman afflicted with Rhumatoid Arthritis who upon our initial meeting longed for AIDS so “someone would care”. Through the grace of God and our hard work, we were able to change that outlook over our 10 days in Songea, but it was still a very powerful experience. And through all of that, the humor and the joy endured. I had to take a second and marvel at the joy that these kids and people were having regardless of their situation, while I oftentimes would (and regretably still do) express indignation at such trivial things like losing a Twitter follower. To say they wear their hearts on their sleeves would be an understatement. The people of Tanzania and Songea’s Spirit is out in full force, all the time.
As I come back to America now and prepare for my Sophomore year of College, I know that I will forever be impacted by this trip in so many different ways. It changed me in more ways than I will probably ever be able to quantify. And while I will always be proud (and grateful) I am an American, I will always try to laugh and emote much like the people of Songea did: without chains.
I love you Songea, and I will be back to see you soon.