I have had many thoughts about anxiety since I have been here in Tanzania, and Zanzibar–both in Stone Town and at the Beach in Pingwe on the east coast of Zanzibar.
Why is anxiety so prevalent (and paralyzing for some) in North America and virtually non-existant in any similar form here in Tanzania (from what I can tell during my short trip, and my limited ability to communicate in Swahili and my new friends’ limited ability to understand my English description of anxiety). My description of anxiety is a state of mental worrying and physical discomfort related to feeling not comfortable in one’s own skin and one’s life, and the present moment.
Sadness and loss exist, as do broken hearts, as does real fear about not having health care for illness or money to pay debts. I would not call this anxiety though, this is real fear about real things. People have real sadness too about real loss. I think about the small 13 year old boy (who looked like he was 9) who wet his bed every night. His grandmother is really angry with him, and makes him feel shameful and tells him he is sick. Because of the wet bed, has bed bugs and now cannot sleep because the bed bugs crawl in his ears. These are real bugs! Not imagined ones. Of course he is anxious about it and it affects his sleep.
I think as well if the broken heart 10 years of Salim, whose fiancée drowned on the overcrowded ferry boat in poor repair. He has been sad and lonely for 10 years (now 40 years old) and also impotently angry at the government that does not take care of its people.
But we in North America, who are so materially comfortable with such great access to health care and a relative lack of concern about survival–we are the ones experiencing the pathological anxiety levels. Why is this? And why do the people I met in Africa not understand our anxiety problem?
One theory is that people are not comfy in their homes. Their homes are generally small and uncomfortable compared to our homes which contain oversized couches and wingback chairs and fresh cotton sheets, and huge flatscreen TVs. We have no “reason” to go out and in fact we would prefer stay in. And so we do. Night after night. We do not see people and have direct contact, eye contact, just hanging around in public squares just to have something to do. In the streets of Stone Town you can have tea in the street at night and in places like Jaw’s Corner (referring to moving jaws or chatting). People look each other in the eyes, they look out for each other they have tea they take time. And they greet each other. Alot. The greetings! They go on and on, back and forth in different variations and each time reminding you how very much not alone you are. There is very little anxiety. People are, faced with the enormous power of nature, made to know how relatively powerless they are. Floating in waves (for those who live near the ocean), the wind, the homes without glass windows, the power, water flow and internet connection cutting in and out, are all just a part of daily life. People seem to accept and flow with these realities with little sense of urgency or protest. Most people are also very physical active in their daily life. There are so many chores that we do not have like collecting wood and hauling water) and so much of what they have is homemade. Their possessions are often fashioned with people’s own hands with materials they find right around them.
So, being connected and not alone, being truly powerless (rather than the illusion of power wealthy folks have), being physical, and needing each other (forcing connection and togetherness), as well as the relative discomfort of homes leading to daily socializing in the streets and outdoors, all contribute to the lack of anxiety.
In addition, there is also the question of individual achievement. Concern with individual achievement and the overwhelming number of choices we have in wealthier parts of the world are causes of great mental stress and anxiety. People in Tanzania seem to not be very concerned with individual achievement. Is this because of the overwhelming obstacles in the way? A daily concern with survival and basic existence? A deeply rooted sensibility towards sharing and community spirit? I cannot say and would need lots more time and many more conversations to get a sense of that. It was rather unexpected that people did not show a sense of envy or wanting objects unlike 21st century Cuba in which many of the young folks are very concerned with the trappings of individual wealth (bling and gadgets). I have not been asked for anything here…not my clothes, or my money. I wonder why.
Being in a majority Muslim place (Zanzibar) is also interesting. What is the role of 5 times daily prayer to keep people connected to the centre and to “higher” purpose. We live in places which, for the most part, have lost religious routines and devotion. I was also surprised at how safe I felt being alone. I have never been so surrounded by men without feeling threatened or creeped on. It is quite amazing. At the same time women are very bonded with each other (it seems) and it is much more difficult for me to connect with them as a tourist/foreigner. I am not sure why.
These are just some of my musings and reflections on the seeming rarity of anxiety in Tanzania. More later…