By Rupal Ramesh Shah
“I would never travel to Tanzania,” he said. Disconcerted by the comment, I asked my new acquaintance to explain. His response didn’t make me feel any better. “Well, it’s full of criminals, according to the current U.S. government,” he said. His tone was matter of fact.
Well, he is right. The current travel advisory for Tanzania on the U.S. Department of State website is at Level 4 (Do Not Travel), citing “crime, terrorism, and targeting of LGBTI persons” as the reason. Similarly, the current travel advisory for Kenya is at Level 3 (Reconsider Travel), due to crime, terrorism, health issues, and kidnapping danger, Zimbabwe is at Level 3 due to crime and civil unrest, and Uganda is at Level 3 due to crime. In fact, a majority of countries on the African continent have a travel advisory of Level 3 or 4. All of these are considered unsafe for travel.
The man’s comment affected me personally because I am a third-generation Tanzanian, born and raised there after my father, grandfather, and their families all built their lives in that country. Everything we have today was sown and built in Tanzania.
I have fond memories of Tanzania. I grew up in Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Moshi is full of color, beauty, happy faces, delicious food, and love. We played hide and seek at the local temple, and netball games wearing our long braids and school uniforms. We ate street food and drank sugarcane juice with black pepper. I remember my childhood with joy.
Sometimes there were challenges. Often, we had power outages. That didn’t matter to us children – we just played outside more. There were water shortages, too. That complicated things, especially when it came to taking a bath. These situations created inconveniences, no doubt.
However, the people we interacted with and the communities we lived in were wonderful. People were friendly and kind. The country was peaceful. I don’t remember experiencing any religious or tribal conflicts, mass shootings, or natural disasters. We had what I would consider to be a good and happy life.
Certainly, there are disturbing stories of individuals who have experienced violence, including against LGBTI persons. Similarly, some countries in Africa such as South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Somalia have been devastated by war, resulting in death and displacement, and refugees seeking asylum in nearby countries like Uganda and Kenya, as well as abroad. However, this is not the case for a majority of countries on the continent, and I am not convinced that entire countries should be labeled as unsafe, dangerous, or violent.
As I replayed what the man said, I thought about how our experiences shape our perspectives. Whereas his thoughts about Africa revolve around safety and security, I think about my own happy childhood in Tanzania. I definitely do not advocate ignoring the U.S. government travel advisories. Rather, I think it’s important not to form opinions about an entire country – or continent – without having a lived experience there.
On January 6, domestic terrorists marched into the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., with the intention of preventing the peaceful transfer of power. Congress went into lockdown mode. That incident, which resulted in five people dead, and many injured, left me shocked, as its negative repercussions spread far and wide, throughout the country.
According to the report “Gun Violence in America,” most recently updated in January 2021, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns every day, and more than 200 are shot and wounded. The U.S. gun homicide rate is 25 times higher than that of other high-income countries. Yet no one in Tanzania asks me whether it’s safe for me to be in the U.S.
It is very difficult to change narratives. I have wondered for a long time when the overall narrative of African countries will change.
There are many different angles to use when looking at a country. My hope is that the narrative about the continent of Africa will someday change, so that people expand the scope of what they see, and deepen their perceptions of life in African countries. Perhaps their perceptions might even change enough that they travel to those countries someday and appreciate them in a different way.
Rupal Ramesh Shah is a third-generation Tanzanian who grew up in an ethnically Indian family in the town of Moshi, at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. Her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was a teenager. She has degrees in microbiology and public health and serves as Executive Director of Konbit Sante, a public health organization that partners with healthcare facilities in Haiti to provide access to healthcare services. As a Tanzanian-Indian-American, with a strong work focus in Haiti, Rupal often finds herself living at the intersection of cultures and communities. She enjoys hot cups of spiced chai, listens to Taarab music from Zanzibar, and knows where to buy the best street food in Mirebalais, Haiti. In addition to Amjambo Africa, she writes for street newspapers that advocate for the rights of people who are homeless in Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle.