Dissonance is like the Holy Grail of learning. It is the place where we hit a conceptual wall, where our core assumptions about people, life, knowledge, and ourselves are rocked to the very foundation, forcing us to do something drastic- to alter our ways of understanding and interacting with the world.
To say that dissonance is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. As humans, we go to great intellectual and emotional lengths to remain “ok” with ourselves and our views of the world. We surround ourselves with people who confirm our viewpoints and spend endless hours explaining away any thing or person who might disagree. For these reasons, we avoid dissonance like the plague, continuing – whenever possible- to believe that everything makes sense and that we essentially have it right. It is only when we find ourselves in places and situations that are so unexpected and surprising that dissonance has a chance to take root. But even then, if given the option, we will find an escape hatch- retreating to a place of comfort, reframing what we have experienced, and preserving our core frameworks and beliefs.
Clearly, we are tenacious with our assumptions. That is why our study abroad trip to the Mara Region of Tanzania is so powerful and exciting. Not only do we take students into a sorely underestimated part of the world, but we expose them to countless examples of people and projects that challenge their core assumptions and beliefs. We visit schools and clinics, agricultural projects, and community development colleges, and see the amazing work being led by Tanzanians, within their own communities, regions, and neighborhoods.
And with these experiences, through the process of guided critical reflection, cracks in our core understandings begin to emerge. If Tanzania is so underdeveloped, then why are the people so happy and industrious? If they are so primitive with regard to infrastructure and innovation, why does everyone have cell phones and access to the internet? And if they are so vulnerable and in need of external support, why are they so committed to education and to strengthening their own workforce through training and professional development?
Eventually, when the differences between the realities of what we are experiencing and our initial understandings become too great to sustain themselves, something powerful and life-changing begins to happen. We admit that we were wrong. Not just a little wrong- but stupidly wrong. And if we were wrong about Tanzania, about Africa, about communities and people around the world and in our own backyards, then we are undoubtedly wrong about so many other important things.
And this, my friends, is when life finally gets interesting. Yes, dissonance is a powerful pedagogical tool. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is strictly reserved for those who are open to a life-changing adventure, to seeing the world and themselves in fundamentally different ways. And to coming back changed.
For me, this is the promise of experiential learning, and the new frontier that lies ahead.
As I snuggle under a blanket on a cold, grey, January morning, still reeling from jetlag and the discombobulation of our recent return, the tastes and memories of Tanzania linger tantalizingly within reach. Yet I know that if I try to capture them directly, they will scurry away like little geckos, disappearing through the spidery cracks in walls. So instead, I will attempt to offer their manifestations, like seashells shaped by the rhythms of the ocean- experiences, moments, and interactions- individually powerful, yet collectively profound.
THOSE WHO NEED YOU MOST WILL FIND YOU
Her name was Christina, and over the course of 2 days, she had lost both of her parents to horrific circumstances. Suddenly an orphan, she found herself alone in the world, without hope or comfort. Yet when the Sisters learned of her situation, they brought her to Baraki on the same day as our visit. A teacher agreed to take her in, and schooling would be provided assuming they could raise funds for her tuition and fees. A partial uniform had already been issued in hopes of helping Christina feel more at home. Upon meeting her and hearing her story, the students were called to action. Amanda and Julia, who had raised money in advance of the trip, pledged to sponsor Christina’s education for one year. They had come to Tanzania hoping that worthy projects would reveal themselves. Little did they know that Christina would be waiting for them, and they would know instantly, without hesitation, that she was theirs to help.
WE DON’T KNOW WHAT WE ARE CAPABLE OF UNTIL WE ARE TESTED
When we asked Sister Janepha to put our students to work, we meant it figuratively. But to our surprise, we found Allison, Tory, and Ali immersed in the work of the clinic, assessing incoming patients and offering recommendations for care. While the students admitted to feeling overwhelmed and under-qualified, their sense of purpose and exhilaration were undeniable. In that moment, in that faraway place, their talents and resources were called upon, and they rose to the challenge with a sense of humility and courage that made us all proud.
LEAD WITH WHAT YOU VALUE MOST
In the end there was playing and laughter, the simple joys of spending time together and discovering connections. This came as a welcome relief after the initial discomfort of raised expectations. Past study abroad groups had visited the school, bringing lavish gifts and offerings. The disappointment on both sides had been palpable, hanging heavy in the air, making it difficult to breathe. If only we had started with the laughter, the intimacy, the joy- these were the gifts that we had come to deliver and eventually received.
LOVE IS THE MAGIC INGREDIENT
We had never seen anyone enjoy chocolate cake as much as Yasin. And as he helped himself to a 4th or 5th piece (we quickly lost count), it was clear that he had fallen under the spell of the Sisters (the Immaculate Heart Sisters of Africa). He was not alone, and as I glanced around the dining room, I saw students laughing, exchanging stories, and glowing in the haze of warmth and joy that seems to cloak the Sisters and all they touch. And as I sat enjoying the home-cooked meal and hospitality, I felt so blessed, honored, and happy we had come.
REVEL IN THE UNEXPECTED
Flat tires, overcrowded safari vehicles, and impromptu theatrical numbers were just a few of the countless unplanned moments that made our trip so amazing. There is something powerful about embracing the unexpected, giving up illusions of control and preparation, opening oneself to the richness of moments and opportunities they bring. Our students seemed to understand this secret from the very beginning. They dove into the moments, the imperfections, and snags- they reveled in the unexpected, embracing each gift with such authentic joy and respect that it often took my breath away. We had planned for the trip to be fascinating, but it was the students who made it so special. How did they become so wise at such a young age?
FRIENDSHIP IS EVERYTHING
There is something magical about hugging an old friend across so many miles and years. Visiting them in their element, seeing their work, meeting their friends, and discovering new ways to connect and build. As I reflect on the 2016 trip and my broader relationship with Tanzania, it is clear that friendships serve as the foundation, the bedrock of everything important. Reconnecting with dear friends like Sister Janepha, Fortidas Bakuza, and Godfrey Telli, and forging new friendships and collaborations- these are the riches that continue to beckon me back to Tanzania, and I always leave wanting more. Asante Sana Tanzania!
Today begins a new year. A clean slate. A pristine page of promise and possibility. I once found such newness intoxicating, always eager to plunge in- to create, dream, begin new chapters, new projects, new stages of life.
But in this moment, I do not feel the whispers of new. The house is exquisitely quiet but not at all empty- buzzing with warmth and life- husband, children, furry creatures. I am moved by its fullness.
Like many, I have been tempted to reset the plot, trading frustration and complexity for shiny and new. Unfinished journals, job applications- efforts to fast forward, to transform, to finally get it right.
Perhaps it takes a while to settle in. To listen quietly as the richness of life buzzes around us. To realize that the air is thick with nuance and color.
I am thankful for the reprieve- the chance to pause, to settle in to the moments, the relationships, the people and places with whom I have touched souls. The richness and beauty are remarkable when framed against stillness- so many textures and colors, patterns pulsating with life and history.
My family is just moments from waking, from setting into motion the dramas and stories, the possibilities that swirl around and through us, always changing yet staying intimately the same.
There is no need to create anew. I accept this gift of understanding. And with it, the sun rises.
In just one week I will return to Tanzania, to the Mara Region, to my special place. In the silence I listen for my soul’s response. I am reminded that this time it is not the promise of new projects, possibilities, or promises to be kept. Instead, it is simply a continuation, another touchstone in a life being lived.
I will accept this insight as a resolution, a promise to listen more attentively to the richness of the moment, to resist the false temptations of starting new. To settle in to the experiences and relationships I have been given, the plots and players to whom I am promised and committed. To let the stories play out in their full splendor. To resist the urge to overproduce.
Perhaps these are not traditional resolutions. But as I embrace their wisdom, I feel a sense of lightness and excitement. My mind wanders to the gifts that I will give and receive in the coming years. To friendships. To experiences. To the richness and mystery of life. To the infinite possibilities that exist within every moment.
The house finally stirs and it begins to snow.
Happy New Year everyone!