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“Nothing really is final until it happens”

Bhadrajee Hewage (left) is a junior from Ireland, majoring in history. He and Mahiri Mwita, lecturer in the Princeton Institute of International and Regional Studies, reflect on the 2018 PIIRS African Studies Seminar, “Ideology, Nationalism and Development: An Experimental Study in Tanzania’s (R)evolution.”
Photo: Ben Weldon

 

On the first day of our PIIRS African Studies Seminar, “Ideology, Nationalism and Development: An Experimental Study in Tanzania’s (R)evolution,” our professor, Mwalimu Mahiri Mwita, expressed to us his hopes and aspirations for our seminar experience — what he hoped we would learn, what he thought we would expect in Tanzania, what he believed we should encounter. And yet as he explained the syllabus, our responsibilities and the itineraries for our weekly excursions, he emphasized one key aspect of the seminar not advertised in any PIIRS brochure or explained in any pre-departure preparation meeting. “Nothing is final in this land until it happens,” he said.

Naturally, this came as a great shock to me. I confess that I applied to this seminar knowing little about Tanzania, nor the intricacies and realities that go hand in hand with experiencing life on the African continent. With a certain naïveté, I admit that what I did know about the region came from Western media coverage of the area and advertisements created by my local church parish encouraging students to volunteer with mission trips to build schools in rural parts of the region. I could not have told you about the existence of an East African technological hub set to rival California’s Silicon Valley or India’s Bengaluru, or what exactly ujamaa was and how it impacted the lives of tens of millions of people for roughly a quarter of a century. 

Looking back, having spent almost six weeks living in Dar es Salaam, I became so much more aware of my surroundings. Not only did I learn basics, I learned some cultural nuances, too. I can now inform you about the current state of the film and music industries in Tanzania, the fraught relationship between Zanzibar and the Tanzanian mainland, and the attitudes of Tanzanians toward closer East African political integration. Of course, spending six weeks in Tanzania in no way qualifies me to act as an expert on Tanzanian affairs, but our daily classroom discussions, volunteer work and field trips have helped me to broaden my intellectual horizons and achieve greater academic maturity. As a concentrator in the history department pursuing a certificate in South Asian studies, I would not have normally been exposed to courses addressing the far-reaching field of African studies. I am grateful for the opportunity to take this seminar through PIIRS.

As an international student at Princeton, life can be challenging even at the best of times. But living in Tanzania, I was constantly placed in situations which, to my benefit, pushed me far beyond my comfort zone. For example, I had never before set foot in an orphanage, and yet volunteering at a local Islamic orphanage helped to provide me with a rich understanding of the dreams and motivations guiding the lives of Tanzania’s next generation.

Having already spent two years at Princeton, I thought that I had finally understood what it meant to learn. Yet, as this seminar has taught me, nothing really is final — until it happens.