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Teacher Returns To Tanzania, Finds Changed Country


Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine, something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

And, as the seasons change, many of us are preparing for spring getaways. This week's Washington Post Magazine turns its attention to travel, including a story from our next guest.

Frank Bures spent a year teaching English in Arusha, Tanzania in the mid-1990s. Recently, he returned to the town to climb a mountain and to reconnect with some of the students he left behind. What he found in Tanzania and what he found out about many of his former pupils surprised him and might surprise you.

And Frank Bures is with us now. Welcome. Welcome back, I should say. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

FRANK BURES: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, I know you want to talk about this mountain, but I confess, I'm more interested in the students. You also wanted to reconnect with some of the students whom you taught in 1996 and you tell the story of your leave taking from one of your students and it's actually a very heartbreaking scene.

BURES: Yeah. That student was Simon. He was one of my students at Ekenywa Secondary School and he lived far up the mountain and had a hardscrabble life and, you know, at one point, he came over to my house and had tea like you do in Tanzania and he was asking me to bring him home. If I could pay for part of his ticket somehow, you know, just to get out. And I just couldn't. I...

MARTIN: You mean, home with you? He wanted you to take him home to the United States with you?

BURES: Yeah. Home to America. Right. Yes. Exactly. And, you know, that...

MARTIN: And when you said, no, what happened?

BURES: Well, you know, there was just nothing else to say and he kind of teared up and it was just a really heartbreaking moment because it's just one of those things where there's nothing you can do and, back then, that seemed to be the best option for people just to go out, go the west and that was really the dream and that was how you made it.

There just weren't a lot of options as far as jobs and employment and bettering yourself, and for young, ambitious people, the space seemed kind of limited in which to make a good life. You know, that's where you have, you know, all these young people go over to the Sahara, get to Europe, you know, just get out any way they could.

And, I mean, he lived way up the mountain. He walked to school every day, two hours a day, and you know, his mother had died and I believe all his siblings died, too. And his father was still around with another wife and other kids, but he was kind of on his own and, you know, did the best he could that way.

And, you know, it was just tough and going abroad and getting a job, sending money back or saving money, you know, just seemed like the way to go.

MARTIN: What was that like, though, to have a student - you know, a young man, like, weeping because you couldn't take him with you? That must have been hard.

BURES: Yeah. It was really hard and, you know, that was - but it was, you know, not that uncommon for people back then to just kind of ask you for help or for money or for what, in Swahili, is called (foreign language spoken). And, you know, one thing that I noticed this time around was that I didn't really have that happen as much or...

MARTIN: I was going to say, that's where (unintelligible). So let's fast forward to your most recent trip.


MARTIN: Tell me what you saw when you got there. And part of the motivation was that you wanted to climb this mountain. I'm going to ask you to tell me about that because most people associate Tanzania with Mount Kilimanjaro, which for reason, was not on your agenda.

But when you went back, tell me about Simon.

BURES: Well, I went back and I met Simon. He has now an office just down the road a little bit from where I was living and, you know, he has computers and phones and bookshelves and that all seems pretty humble by our standards, but to think back in 1996 that there would have been this kind of thing possible, it would have been - it was really hard to imagine.

And he's got his own business that he started, his tourism business. You know, he hosts guests from around the world. He tries to do his own marketing and, you know, most of his challenges were how to better market and how to get, you know, customers and, you know, and he wanted me to join his company and be one of the directors and help him out, you know. And that was what I noticed a lot of is I didn't have people asking me so much for help as much as to be business partner, investor, something like that.

And, you know, it's a completely different feeling and, at one point, Simon even said to me, you know, no. I think Arusha now is maybe a better place to make money than America.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with freelance writer Frank Bures. He wrote about returning to Tanzania more than a decade after teaching there. He was writing for the Washington Post Magazine and he's telling us what he found out that surprised him.

One of the things that - points that you make in your piece is that, when you left Tanzania in 1996, things seemed grim. One of the things that's happened since then is that economies across Africa have grown. Well, for example, you say that, according to a 2011 report from the African Development Bank, the number of people in Africa's middle class tripled from 1980 to 2010 and, today, fully a third of people on the continent are considered middle class.

You know, we recently reported on the cable break. There's a, you know, break in the cable that offers, you know, high speed data transmission to Africa and we talked about the slowdown there and the impact on business there, but I think what might be surprising to some people is that there's high speed data transmission at all.

BURES: Yeah. In fact, I mean, there's a lot of it and there's actually a big industry or, you know, a faster growing industry in Kenya, especially, of engineers and online stuff and, you know, the economy there is growing really fast and since the war has kind of - from the '90s - settled down and stuff and, you know, now, there's like - in Arusha, when I came in, there was a big traffic jam and there are stoplights that weren't there. There's Internet cafes and more buildings and less farms and just so much things that have changed.

MARTIN: Your student, Simon, said this about America. He said, it seems like Arusha is a better place to make money than America now. Why does he say that and how did you react to that?

BURES: I mean, whether or not it's true is one thing, but that's kind of - it was striking that that's his perception, you know, is that there are opportunities there and I take that as a really good sign. You know, people are hopeful and looking forward and the economy is growing and there are things that you can do and things that you can create.

And, you know, I just - for me, that was, you know, one of the best things to hear, really.

MARTIN: OK. Well, tell us, before we let you go, about this mountain that you wanted to climb. It's Meru, right?

BURES: Yeah, Meru.

MARTIN: Meru. And, as we said, most people associate Tanzania with Kilimanjaro, but that wasn't exciting to you.

BURES: Right.

MARTIN: So why Meru and why not Mount Kilimanjaro? And did you make it up there? That's what we really want to know.

BURES: You know, I always wanted to climb it, but I didn't have the sort of chance and it just seems to me like a more interesting mountain. It's less traveled. It's a little more interesting geology and stuff and I did get to climb it, actually, with Simon and I'd climbed it a lot of times, sort of, in my mind, trying to imagine what it would be like, but it was nothing like that.

You know, you go up these kind of Savannah-like areas and then you go through kind of a rain forest, but the highlight for me kind of was to get to see this - the ash cone that's sort of inside the mountain. It's almost as tall as some mountains and so that was really amazing and, you know, so I felt like I was finally able to kind of complete that circle in some way.

MARTIN: Frank Bures is a writer. His story, "The Reunion," was featured in this week's Washington Post Magazine and he was kind enough to join us from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Frank Bures, thanks so much for joining us.

BURES: All right. Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.