Welcome home to Rhotia

By Kate Bathurst

I love to witness the shocked expressions people give me when I tell them that I had a strictly enforced 6 p.m. curfew every single night while I was studying abroad in Tanzania. For three months, I lived in a rural village that doesn’t even exist on Google maps. The other students and I were not allowed to show our knees in public, nor could we venture anywhere off campus by ourselves, and we could only go out to the bars on Sunday afternoons. This was truly the antithesis of a typical college study abroad program, but it was also the most beautiful and outlandish three months of my life. Although we were fortunate enough to go on plenty of incredible game drives in the Serengeti and the Ngorongoro Crater, among other national parks,  those experiences were not nearly as special to me as living in a strange and wonderful place called Rhotia.

I originally thought of Rhotia as a “tiny village,” but I soon realized that was not the case. My friends and I spent hours upon hours exploring the endless red dirt roads, dried-up riverbeds and windy hilltops that overlooked the vast green countryside. Every place we went was indescribably beautiful, in the dry and rainy seasons alike. Our daily three-hour hikes involved being engulfed in about nine or 10 passing goat herds, being invited to drink tea with complete strangers in their mud houses and being spied upon and ambushed by hordes of small children and their high-pitched shrieks of “wazungu!” (white people!) In Rhotia, it was impossible to be lonely—every single person we passed on the road would smile and ask where we came from and where we were going. Sometimes they would invite us inside their homes to sit and chat for a while. We usually burned through our entire Swahili vocabulary pretty quickly by discussing our favorite African animals, but the language barrier didn’t seem to bother our Rhotian friends too much. Smiling, laughing and sign language seemed to be sufficient communication for all of us.

In the midst of our adventures, my walking companions and I somehow became best friends with “the Macarena family,” who lived on top of a hill with a gorgeous view of the countryside. Once a week, we made the trek to their mud house where the three Macarena girls seemed both overjoyed and mystified by our presence. Even though their English was quite limited and our Swahili was atrocious, we somehow managed to talk to the girls for hours while they offered us generous portions of beans and ugali (cornmeal mush). The portions were, in fact, so generous that we could never actually finish eating them. The Macarena girls would notice immediately if we left the beans untouched for more than one minute, and they would encouragingly shout “continue eat!” until we painfully forced ourselves to ingest more beans. Occasionally, with our stomachs on the verge of explosion, we all danced to ABBA together under the hot sun, surrounded by cows and goats and sheep and chickens and stray, flea-infested dogs. Moments like those made me especially happy to be alive.

Another moment that made me happy to be alive was our final interaction with Rhotian locals, on our very last day in Tanzania. A man named Dudieck, who we had met on a walk a few days earlier, kept insisting that we visit him at his home. We had no idea what to expect, but he seemed absolutely beside himself with excitement that a bunch of white kids were coming over. When we finally arrived at his house, every single one of his relatives was in the yard preparing a feast. Dudieck presented us as his “brothers and sisters.” He herded us all into his house, where we sat in a circle on the dirt floor and tried not to appear too bewildered. Dudieck, after learning all of our names, began to pass around Polaroid pictures of his relatives standing beside his mother at her open-casket funeral. We were all quite shocked but he didn’t appear bothered at all. In fact, he somehow made us promise to create T-shirts displaying his mother’s name, birth date and death date so we could proudly wear them all over America. After we promised, he assembled all of us in front of his mother’s fresh grave in the front yard, where we posed for several solemn photographs. None of us knew quite how to respond to any of this, so we just didn’t ask questions. Dudieck, however, had a lot of questions. He wanted to know our phone numbers, email addresses, mailing addresses, our parents’ names, our grandparents’ names, how many siblings we had and most importantly, when we were coming back to Rhotia.

I ask myself that question too. A return trip to such a secluded place seems unlikely, but one can never be sure. As time goes by, Rhotia continues to linger in my mind like a strange dream of a different world—a place where everyone treats one another like family, where the moon hangs upside down in the sky, where every plant looks like Dr. Seuss invented it. It’s no wonder I went through some pretty terrible reverse culture shock when I came back to America. Part of me wishes I could have stayed longer, but I know there will be more traveling in my future now that I’ve caught the wanderlust bug. As of now, Dudieck has sent me 41 invitations over Facebook that say something along the lines of “welcome home to Rhotia!” — so I know that whatever happens, I’ll still have friends waiting for me in my favorite Tanzanian village.