Hanging out with the Founder

written 2/20

In the middle of my research field expeditions, I played host to Jim and Jen Meeks. If you have not ever seen the 2Seeds website, you will not know that Jim Meeks is co-founder and chairman of the organization. They arrived in Tanzania for the now annual trip for ‘stakeholders’ (board members, mentors, others connected to the group) to come visit project sites and gain experience of daily life here. The first part of the trip was a dinner to gather everyone together and mingle. Excitement was in the air as we arrived at our usual haunt, The White House, to meet all the people fresh from the long trip to Korogwe. One friend realized that she had forgotten how to talk to people like that—business related, professional but casual meetings. Business interactions in Tanzania in no way resemble business culture in America. She was worried; she thought she would stand there dumb and stupid.

Being in a relatively isolated Tanzanian village certainly changes your material with which to make conversation. We found ourselves talking about our lives here (appropriate, yes, but still strange) and answering questions that made us realize just how isolated we have been. The dinner was lovely; everyone introduced themselves and the stakeholders each spoke about why they got involved with 2Seeds. It was incredible to hear these people talk about our organization—work that we live and breathe day in and day out—with such warmth and pride and to realize the connection they have to it. The very real, important connection they have to it. Then all of us took turns talking about our projects; a brief overview of the mission and an update on what has happened this year and what the future might look like. Hearing the others talk about their projects—give something like a pitch to these important people (members of the board? hello??)—made me realize how smart they all are and how incredible what we are doing is. It’s the difference in perspective that did it. Talking to them about their projects and the latest problem or question, it is business as usual. But to hear them talk to people who know very little about our lives, our partners, our projects; it sounds totally different. It’s important and huge and demanding and kind of random.

The next day everyone broke up; the stakeholders were paired with a team and taken back to the village to stay overnight. I brought with me Jim and Jen Meeks (hint: Jim is a co-founder and is chairman of the organization). I settled them with their piki drivers and sent them on their way and after a quick stop to get some drinking water I followed. After a brief rest, we went to meet Adidyah (one of my first friends in Tabora and a current group member). She insisted we have breakfast so I carried our house mat over to a shaded area outside her house and we sat down. She sent a small troop of children to get what was required (sugar, fried things to eat). Two other group members joined us and I sat there translating between my guests and my partners. It was an interesting position to be in because I was able to look at each through the eyes of the other. I saw my partners through the eyes of Jim and Jen and I saw our guests through the eyes of my partners. I was both a local and a guest and I could relate to both.

Jim and Jen are such good-natured people that it was easy for them to convey their excitement and gratitude without knowing any Swahili. Everyone was pleased with everyone else and we had a nice breakfast. I had planned with Adidyah to make a large lunch for our group members and I delivered the goods I had bought in Korogwe and left them to begin their preparations. I took my guests on a small walk through Tabora, talking about the changes the project has seen in the past year and how Jamie and I feel about where it is right now. Being able to talk to them about things that have been so close to my thoughts for so long gave me a chance to generalize and think about what has happened critically. We wandered through the school area, found a bleached cow skull in the school farm, and wandered back to the house so they could rest before lunch. The sun was hot and bright and we couldn’t be exposed to its rays for too long.

We returned to Adidyah’s where the cooking was in full swing. I would say I have never seen so much food before but it would be untrue (food here is no joke—they go big and they are damn pushy about eating it). They made five kilos of rice, three kilos of beans, and two large cabbages for a delicious salad (their version of salad is chopped very fine and cooked limp in oil—but still good). We did not host my partner’s families the way I thought we would but it was still wonderful to see everyone together and introduce them to Jim and Jen. I was so happy for them to be hosting; guests are very important in Tanzanian culture. They are treated to the best that is available and bring good luck. They were so pleased to be hosting 2Seeds people from America (I tried to explain what role Jim plays in the organization but I don’t think it translated well).

We sat and enjoyed the delicious meal. Our group advisor (and our neighbor and my favorite old man, Msembe) sat as well; being the only man makes him stand out and I am grateful he has such a headstrong and opinionated wife because I think it makes him more comfortable in the group of women than others might be. I will simply say, he is most grateful whenever he meets a male guest (his face literally lit up when he saw Jim and the same reaction happens whenever Sam visits). Partway through, Jim asked if he should say something to the group—about 2Seeds or their work or our relationship. I said that I was game but that the message which would be conveyed would really depend more on my abilities than his: funny but true. When there is a lull in the feast and everyone has slowed down, relishing the feeling of being full, Jim cleared his throat and began to talk. As I was about to open my mouth, I heard an echo of what Jim had said. Msembe started translating Jim’s impromptu speech and he did it well, better than I could have managed. I sat back, watching the two of them sitting next to each other and listening to them both speaking. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to hear what Jim said be expressed to the women; he spoke about how important the group is to 2Seeds and about how the work they are doing is hard but worth it. He told them how he had been told to visit Tabora out of all the other villages and how proud they should be of what they are doing. [I did not interject that he had been sent to Tabora because the project, up until recently I am happy to say, has been something of the black sheep of the organization and there has been trouble settling its place and realizing its potential—I’m not sure if Msembe could have translated it anyway]. I was so proud of my women and all that Jamie and I had been through to get to that point.

After lunch, which made a tiny dent in the overall amount of food that had been made, we returned to the house to rest a bit. While Jen took a nap, I talked to Jim about St. John’s (where I had gone to school—a topic that intrigues most people even if they are already familiar with the school) and 2Seeds (a great opportunity to get not only the perspective of someone on the other side of it all (America) but also someone at the other end (the top, the beginning, the corporate end)). He talked about the transformation from idea to actuality and spoke of the visions for the future.

Towards the end of the day we craved some more activity and I wanted to show them the beautiful view of the village with the mountains in the distance. We set out about an hour before sunset and worked our way up into the hills. After the heat of the day, the relief of the evening was even more heavenly and they both perked up a lot with the cooler weather. The views from the tops of the hills are truly beautiful and it was a perfect ending to the day. We returned to the house after dark and I made a quick dinner before we all crashed (a big thank you to Ros from last year for providing the all-important seasoning which made the dinner so delectable to the Meeks).

In the morning we had breakfast and a brief walk into the scrub land outside of the village along the well-worn cow paths. The sun was brutal once again but we braved it. We returned to wait for their rides to carry them to the next destination; a stop at Bungu, a mountain village. Msembe and I saw them off together with many thanks exchanged and a long sequence of good-byes.

I was so worried about hosting by myself and about giving the right impression of the project. It’s so hard to know how my perspective translates and it’s hard enough for me to analyze my own experiences let alone explain or summarize them for others. It ended up being a truly wonderful visit. It was such a good opportunity to have fresh, new eyes and it was honestly a chance for me to realize how much I have accomplished and how far the project has come. We have done a lot of hard work and our perseverance paid off. In some ways, I was thankful the dinner and hosting happened when it did: everything was on the up for our project and the future was bright. Coincidence aside, I was just so pleased to be able to talk about all the exciting things that are happening and that will happen and to be given license to boast about my project and my women.

A big thank-you to everyone who visited on that trip; the dinner was one of the most rewarding nights of being part of 2Seeds. And thanks to Jim and Jen for toughing it out in Tabora! You were wonderful guests and I had a lovely time.

cross-posted at http://ashleyintabora.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/show-off/

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