We work at the grassroots level throughout the Muslim World to counter violent extremism before it takes hold, to promote tolerance and understanding, and to foster better relations with the United States.
As a volunteer in Zanzibar, my presence here is meant to embody the mission statement I adopted from the organization that sent me–America’s Unofficial Ambassadors: “Bridging the gap between Muslims and Americans through internship service.”
Upon arriving here in Zanzibar a week ago, I figured this could be accomplished by smiling and greeting people in the streets, respecting Muslim culture by dressing modestly, and avoiding moves the “typical American” would make. But when I hit the office on Wednesday, I realized this mission statement runs much deeper, and requires much more intentional effort than I had thought.
As a communications and social networking intern, I was comfortable with the idea of sitting at my desk in the ZAYEDESA headquarters from 8:30-2:30, trying to advance their online platform, and creating promotional materials. At two on my first day, I was ready to leave for the day (I’ve never had a desk job before and was getting antsy!) when my boss asked if I would go to their youth center with their program coordinator, to attend a meeting of drug addicts. A couple minutes later I was on a dala-dala (a form of public transport) headed to the center.
I regret to admit that I was not in a very good mood, and continued to feel sorry for myself as I sourly sat in the common room of the center, before the meeting began (an hour and a half late). When the meeting did begin, it was in Swahili, so I could not understand much. I was too relieved when our driver, Ali, came to pick me up.
When we reached home, though, I immediately felt guilty. I had just had a unique opportunity to interact with people outside my office, and use the Swahili I have been learning the past couple semesters to get to know them and show them I care. Instead, I was self-conscious for being the only “Mzungu” in the room. I knew I was rude to the staff at the center, since I was clearly uncomfortable the entire time I was there.
The next day, my boss suggested I go back to the same center, but for a meeting of sex workers. I agreed, and with determination to make up for the day prior! Just with a shift in attitude, I was able to be in interesting conversations, and learn more about the people ZAYEDESA serves. I sat through this second meeting with a keen sense that if the women weren’t wearing hijabs or speaking Swahili, I could have been in an American informational meeting on STIs. I became aware of how innately human we all are, even if we don’t share the same religion, skin color, or nationality.
Over this past week, I have realized that in my workplace, “Bridging the gap between Muslims and Americans” means not being married to my monochronic time system, or dependent on a set schedule, but excited at the invitation to step outside my comfort zone, and to do so with grace.