The one where Tanzania taught me the true meaning of wealth and happiness

As I mentioned in the previous post, I learned a lot while I was in Tanzania. While it all had an impact on me, I keep thinking about what it means to be truly wealthy and happy.

It takes a village to raise a child. There is a reason this African proverb exists, and to the Tanzanians, it couldn’t be any more accurate. The children really are raised by the community. In America, we are taught “Stranger Danger.”  There, everyone is part of the clan, part of the family. Anyone can reprimand the children anytime without motives being questioned. There are no babysitters because the kids are children of the community. If a mother cannot afford medicine, she can go to the community to help her. Children as young as 2 years old walk to school on their own. They aren’t at risk of getting kidnapped or of pedophiles snatching them up. Everyone protects and looks out for everyone and seem to genuinely care.* It is customary to ask about one’s family, friends, health, and get updated on life before diving into conversation. Tanzanians show interest in each other’s lives and actually mean it. What a concept. I know. I think this sense of security and trust contributes to why everyone there is so friendly, so positive, so happy. It is a true community in every sense of the word.

I would often sit in the front seat of our van on the way to school to watch the community going about their everyday lives and to see the pedestrians wave and smile at me. The kids smile and wave to Mzungus (foreigners) passing in cars like they are waving to old friends. How can you not smile and wave back to a smiling, waving little kid? Smiling and being friendly really is contagious. I would carry those moments with me even after they had passed. I found myself “paying it forward” by waving to and greeting almost every passer-by.

The smiling waving kids don’t have fancy gadgets or many resources at school, and for some, the porridge we served was the only food they would get all day. But no matter what, they glowed with smiles and a sense of cheerfulness. Everyone says it when they return to The States, but it really is true. Despite having very little, the Tanzanians are the most friendly, joyful and happy people. In all my travels, I have never encountered a whole culture as friendly and grateful before. While in-country, I never felt like an outsider and always felt welcomed. My Dad always says You never know what happens behind closed doors and while that may be true, perhaps this is just a front, the Tanzanian’s I met seem to have found something that many of us have neglected: happiness and being grateful for what they have.


Homes seen roadside. Left- woman (hard to see her) sitting inside her house without windows. Right – rusted homes

Of the volunteers at CCS, I was the only volunteer whose teacher invited her to see her home. My teacher couldn’t wait for the day I was able to visit her home so she could show me her cows and pigs. Her home was maybe 10 feet by 10 feet.**  She had a curtain separating the bunk beds from the living room which was composed of a couch and coffee table. Her kitchen was outside in a wood hut with an open fire. And boy, was she proud of her home and farm animals. It gave her such pleasure to show her prize possessions to me, it was truly humbling. Some of the other homes I saw were nice and kept; some had four walls, some had no furniture, or no windows- just holes to let light in, and a rusted old roof. That is not to say all homes were small and rusty but most that I saw were.

I asked some of my local friends if people travel and found out that many have never left the country or even Moshi Town. Many have never been on a Safari or even seen the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, and here I was doing it all. So perhaps ignorance really is bliss. But I don’t think this so-called ignorance is why they are content with this simplistic lifestyle. Regardless if they travel or not, they do have insight into the world outside Moshi with internet cafes, TV’s, papers and radios. Yet, they are still happy with what they have, not pining for more or complaining about what they don’t have.

One day while I was in town printing photos of my students for an art project, I decided to print two photos for my teacher, too. When I presented her with a photo of herself and another of her with her son, she hugged me and got tears in her eyes. To us it might just be another printed photo, but to her, that photo made her day. She didn’t have a camera so that might be the only picture she has of herself. Another day, she came to class and her phone, think circa 1999 Nokia, (no one had iphones) was smashed in two pieces but she smiled and laughed about it. She continued to use it for several days and I thought of the many people back home who would have had a tantrum and demand it be fixed immediately, as if it was the worst thing that could possibly happen to them. Is a broken phone really the biggest problem in the world? Do I hear “first world problems?” I think so!

In America, our problem is we are always coming out with new shiny, flashy, things so we always want more. Status determines wealth. We always want the next best thing instead of being content with what we have.  We always want more, more, more. We live in a society where everything is bigger, better, faster, and now. We need instant gratification. Nothing is ever enough. Tanzanians live very simple, happy lives and are seemingly content with what they have.

I am not trying to imply they do not have their challenges because that just wouldn’t be true. Everyone has challenges and hardships. But perhaps they just handle it better and with a better attitude. Afterall their motto is Hakuna Matata – (yes, the phrase from The Lion King)- and it really does mean no worries/problems. They don’t seem to be bothered by the silly, waste of energy drama or stupid stress that us Mzungus always seem bothered by.

After seeing their lifestyle, the simpleness that surrounds them, the way they smiled and waved at me as I drove by, and how I was treated with such a welcoming friendliness, it became clear to me that having more money and stuff doesn’t guarantee or equate to happiness. We, Mzungus, were often looked at as people who were rich simply because we were foreigners. To the locals I may be “rich”, but in my eyes, it is the Tanzanians who are rich. The Tanzanians showed me that wealth isn’t measured in currency like Schillings or Dollars, but in happiness and gratefulness. They showed me that happiness is not dictated by how many material possessions you own, how much money you have, or by something as silly as even if you are connected to the internet or not. Rather, it is based on what you deem as a priority, your outlook on life, who you surround yourself with, how you treat and are treated by others, and if you appreciate what you do have.

It is this, happiness and gratitude that makes you wealthy, not money or status. And with that, Tanzanians are definitely wealthier.

The photo I took of my teacher; random children on the street waving; lower left: the orphanage kitchen;  Lower right: my teacher’s kitchen

*I don’t mean to imply it is like Pleasantville or anything. It is far from that and I know there are always a few bad apples in a community. Moshi does have a prison but law enforcement is a lot more strict in punishment in order to keep the community safe.

**I don’t know measurements so that might not be accurate. But it was small.

Author: Caryn

Hi! My name is Caryn. I'm a midwest transplant living on the east coast. I love games, asking questions, making lists, and sunshine. I dream of someday owning an antique car, starting my own charity, and traveling the world. Welcome to my Blog!

6 thoughts on “The one where Tanzania taught me the true meaning of wealth and happiness”

  1. With each installment of your story, I get more and more goosebumps. This is absolutely heartwarming. I love hearing your perspective and the lessons you learned on your trip. This is one lesson (money does not equal happiness) that I will strive to carry forward with me.

  2. Great post, lady. It’s amazing how simple these lessons seem – that money isn’t everything, that happiness is easy – but they’re so easy to forget when we look at our busy and crowded lives.

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