Beauty, Modesty, and Immersion: Reflecting on My Experiences in Tanzania

June 13, 2014
tanzania, working abroad
Beauty and Modesty in Tanzania

For me, walking out of Dulles International Airport came with a rush of many emotions. First was happiness because after two months I got to be with my best friend and mom again. Second was being sweaty. I forgot how the humidity on the East Coast makes you feel like you have to chop down the treacherous jungle of air with a machete while drowning in your own perspiration.

Now after almost a week of being home, I’ve adjusted to humidity and to living with my little brother who insists on singing every other sentence. I’m happy to be home. I’m happy, but not completely content. Now that I have stepped so far out of my comfort zone, I feel a little bored with the mundane tasks of my everyday life in the U.S. I am already thinking of where I will travel to next.

I am also constantly thinking of the amazing friends I left behind. I have already been imagining ways in which they could come visit me in the States. I would love to show them around my corner of the globe.

The young adults that I taught at Tumekuja Secondary School in Zanzibar, Tanzania, have left such a huge impact on me. They have taught me just as much, if not more than I taught them. They taught me that I do not want to study the world from a book and then get a job “solving” the problems of the world from behind a desk. All I can do (and want to do) is lend a hand.

They taught me that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. Growing up, I saw girls dressed in belly shirts and thought, “Wow, they are beautiful.” I saw girls wearing hijabs and dressing conservatively and thought, “Wow, that sucks! They must be so hot.” They did not fit in my molded view of beautiful.

On the first day of Ramadan, I wore a hijab for the first time. I walked into school with a continual stream of compliments following me.

“Oh teacha’ Emma, you look so beautiful.”

I felt so awkward in the hijab, definitely not beautiful. I was completely covered with no hair. How could I look beautiful?

Just as I grew up seeing beauty as showing more skin and having long hair, my female students grew up seeing beauty as the complete opposite. They looked at someone’s eyes to see her beauty. Beauty was defined by how much a woman was covered – not by how much skin she was showing.

Sure I have read about the many cultures of the world, but seeing it first hand is completely different than just reading about it. I have learned so much from my students. They have helped me figure out what I want to do next as far as my academic career goes, and they have given me more confidence in my own beauty.

About Emma Way

AvatarEmma Way volunteered in Zanzibar through America’s Unofficial Ambassadors.

One thought on “Beauty, Modesty, and Immersion: Reflecting on My Experiences in Tanzania

  1. Avatar
    January 29, 2015


    What a beautiful article, you went there and embraced the culture and more important taught and help to open minds of these students that I am sure they geniunely adored you. Thank you so much for being you and help these Tanzanian girls because I was just like them and people like you gave me a great opportunity by sharing their knowledge and embrace me for who I was.


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