Pfizer Employee Writes Book About Moving To Rural Tanzania

May 19, 2016

Alexandria Osborne feeds her chickens at her home in rural Tanzania
Credit courtesy of Alexandria Osborne

A year after her divorce, Alexandria Osborne decided to take a Pfizer fellowship program in Tanzania in 2009. Little did she know that she would meet her second husband, move to his rural hometown, and start her own organization dedicated to the health and education of rural Tanzanians. Osborne has written a book on her journey called The Black Mzungu. She’ll give talks at two local libraries next week. 

She’ll be at Kalamazoo’s Eastwood Library Monday night at 6 p.m. and at the Portage Public Library Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

Alexandria Osborne on the beach in Tanzania
Credit courtesy of Alexandria Osborne

Being A Mzungu

Osborne grew up in New York and moved to Kalamazoo to work for Pfizer in the 80s. There she met her first husband, a Libyan-American, and converted to Islam. Though they divorced, Osborne still kept her faith.

Soon after she came to Tanzania, locals started calling her “mzungu” - a Swahili word that means “foreigner,” usually someone of European descent.

Osborne says at first, she was offended. She says as an African American, she thought moving to Tanzania would be a sort of homecoming:

“I felt that I wasn’t being accepted as the long lost cousin and I think a lot of people go through that. And we make an assumption that just because there’s common DNA that there’s a tie, but centuries and centuries have gone by where there is still a divide between the African American descendants of slaves and the African.”

Marrying A Rural Tanzanian

Osborne met her husband Saidi during her Pfizer fellowship. He was working for CARE - a humanitarian organization. Osborne says she and Saidi come from very different backgrounds. She has a PhD, while he only finished elementary school and got his first pair of shoes when he was 10 years old.

Osborne recalls the time Saidi took her to see where he grew up - more than 90 acres of land near the small village of Ruvu:

“There was no road there. So we walked three kilometers over rocks, passed a mangrove forest. We had to take a small dhow (boat) to cross this little water passage and nobody was there. It was this pristine beach. And he showed me the stones where he was born and he showed me the family cemetery so I knew they had been there. And they vacated it in 1968 when his father died at the age of what they say 114 and Saidi was only 10 years old. So nobody lived there, just fishermen sometimes had campfire there. And so I said, ‘This is fine, we can live here.’ Oh, Saidi was so ecstatic.”

Osborne says she had never farmed before and knew nothing about living in rural Tanzania, but she says she trusted Saidi.

Friends And Foes

In The Black Mzungu, Osborne spends a lot of time talking about the complex relationships she and Saidi have with their neighbors, relatives, and hired hands in Tanzania. A few workers steal cement from their home site and drink during the work day. A neighbor's child steals water from their well. Their livestock tender lives up to his name of Sijoli, which roughly translates to "I don't care." 

"It was really complicated for us because a lot of these people are family. Saidi is very good at setting the boundaries and teaching me how to set the boundaries. Sometimes he says, ‘You know, I know that this is farming time and I know that they don’t have food so let me call the store in the next village and have them deliver some rice and beans to my sister.’ And he’ll just do this out the clear blue sky and then we’ll send some money through the phone to that store owner. But in the meantime, one of those sisters’ husbands was involved in stealing our cement, right? So for me, sometimes I say, ‘Saidi, I don’t know how you can talk to these people.’ I mean someone who betrayed us, who stole from us. But we live among them and some of them are family." 

And Osborne says she often depends on those same neighbors, relatives, and workers for help. Just two weeks ago, Osborne says their neighbor helped them kill a python that ate all of their chickens. 

Rich Country, Poor People

  Osborne says 75 percent of people in Tanzania live in rural areas and it's hard to bring basic services to all of those people in remote locations. All the same, she says Tanzania has rich resources. 

"You have mining, you have tourism, we have gas now, you have a port, you have fishing. So we are hopeful that if you can get the right people in charge, you can change the life of the people. That’s the challenge," she says. 

Osborne says people are often undereducated in Tanzania - both in school and in public health issues. 

Many people come down with malaria every year. Osborne says she just got it before leaving for the U.S. a few days ago.

“When I get the symptom, I know. Let me get tested, let me get on a dose right away. People in rural areas they delay to make the decision to go. Another point is they go to local, traditional healers rather than going to what we would say more Western type medicine.”

Osborne says the life expectancy for people in Tanzania is still in the 50s.

The LIFT Foundation

Osborne says very few kids in rural areas of the country ever finish elementary school - and even fewer pass the final exam that allows them to go on to secondary school. When Osborne told her friends in Kalamazoo about this, she says many of them offered to pay for school supplies and tuition fees.

Osborne says this generosity inspired her to start the Lindi Islamic Foundation of Tanzania. The LIFT Foundation focuses on health, food security, education, water sanitation, and building Islamic institutions in the rural town of Lindi.

Osborne says the LIFT Foundation has certainly helped the people there, but there’s still a lot of work to do. She remembers the first year LIFT bought books for the students:

“Eighteen children passed the primary school, unprecedented for my village. Of those 18, only four finished secondary. They all failed the test still and no girls. So the challenge is still very huge,” she says.

You can follow Alexandria Osborne in Tanzania through Facebook.