Sunday, August 30, 2015

Attending to Omnipresent Attention

At the end of a poorly maintained tarmac road, crossing a wooden bridge that cracks a bit too loudly every time a motor vehicle drives over it, and then going up a dirt hill...a journey to a remote populated corner of the larger Iringa district brings one to, well, something a bit different.  On the top of the hill is a massive brick cathedral, reminiscent of southern Europe, surrounded by a slew of carefully crafted buildings that also would not feel out of place on the northern continent.  Still, the little area established by Italian missionaries see few visitors, perhaps increasing the level of curiosity showered upon a foreigner.

The fact that the local residents are exposed to foreign establishments, specifically in the Caucasian priests of Roman Catholic faith, does make them much more bold toward approaching foreigners than residents of nearby villages.  The fact that English-medium secondary schools sponsored by the church are long-established in the vicinity of the cathedral equips the locals for conversations with foreigners.  And with the author wondering into the secondary school to glare at their Italian-esque architecture, the locals (students and non-students, with some on their way to Sunday service) maximized the opportunity for conversation.

That is not to say the conversations were deep and meaningful.  They were mostly in the range of "Where do you come from?"  "What are you doing here?"  "How long have you been in Tanzania?"  But this is already much more detailed and pin-pointed than the usual "Hello" and "How are you?" that the author gets in Iringa for townspeople.  Again, it is not that the locals here are more interested in the foreigners dropping by (or maybe they are, given that foreigners are rarer here) but more likely because the greater confidence they have in their English skills.

And the sheer volume of people that followed the lone foreigner around as he took pics were just incredible.  Students of the secondary school jumped at the opportunities to be in the pictures.  Locals walked the author toward the junctions of the main roads when asked about the short-cuts to the town area.  With their actions, they have displayed their welcomes to someone who clearly does not belong, and often seem a bit confused to be in a place so far away from even the most basic public transport option (on the way back from the town, the author had to walk some 3km just to find a dalla-dalla back toward Iringa town)

Yet, come to think of it, the fact that foreigners do get so much genuinely positive attention is because generations of foreigners who got the attention reacted well to the attention.  Sure, there are cases where foreigners are straight up asked for money because the solicitor simply claimed to be poor and in need, but the solicitations are generally not pesky and can be easily deflected without constant follow up.  In other words, even the locals who do the attention-giving know, by their own cultural standards, that there are little reason for foreigners to react negatively to the attention given.

The foreigners, at least in the grassroots level, have not disappointed the locals in most cases.  Indeed, most foreigners in the remote, more impoverished parts of the country have come to contribute instead of ripping off the locals.  It goes without saying that NGOs have worked on projects, whether successfully or unsuccessfully, that has the idealistic intentions of improving people's lives in one way or the other.  Even for-profit ventures, such as masses of Chinese road-builders, have invested in projects that would bring long-term returns not only for the companies themselves but the local populations.

As such, there should be constant reminders to the foreigners themselves that the attention paid to them as they walk down the street, however annoying and irritating as they can be at times, are fundamentally a sign of approval and blessing for continued presence.  Had these foreigners done nothing but thieving and pillaging, locals would not hesitate to greet with violence.  And all this happens while knowing that the foreigners are incredibly wealthy by local standards and local policing, when crime occurs, remains ineffective at best.

Locals here, just like they would be elsewhere, are rational creatures who are capable of doing basic calculations on comparative benefits.  Treating foreigners well and they bring long-term benefits.  That is a mantra that has served them well for the past decades (even if it was not always the case, given the horror stories of slavery and colonialism).  To keep this impression alive and well is for the benefits of both these locals and the foreigners.  When it is goodwill from locals that keep them safe in a place will legal enforcement is spare, rocking the boating is by no means a good idea.

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