Inspiring Vines of the Pergola - Oloipung'o - Part I

Published August 8th, 2016

This is the first piece in a series, starting now. An Italian-Russian-American-who-lived-in-Africa-for-a-decade-and-then-returns-to-America. I share my take on what it was like, is like, to come back to the country I was born, where I received my formal education, and where many friends and family live. Seeing the United States of America again, from 2012 until today, with African lenses, has been more than interesting, to say the least. I look forward to sharing with you…


Four years ago this month, I made the choice to move back to the United States of America. At the time, I was living in South Africa, seeing private clients locally and spending good parts of the day on the laptop continuing to run the humanitarian organization I co-founded in Tanzania, marketing safaris and working on my first book. I shared a beautiful home in Pretoria with a dear friend and colleague that we had intended to transform into a wellness centre. I had two great consulting jobs, one in Tanzania and another in Botswana. Life was sweet, yet strangely stuck in some way I couldn't understand. My friends and I often noted how the technology in 2012 allowed some of us to choose where to live while our work could be located somewhere else. In some ways this was liberating, in others, unsettling. It is challenging to grow roots in a cloud.

In May of that year, around my birthday, things started to fall away. The people in charge of the consulting projects revealed to me that the projects were not going anywhere, one due to finances, the other to politics. I was sad because I believed in them both, and had really put a lot of mind and heart in them. It became clear that the timing and circumstances were not right for the wellness centre in Pretoria. The NGO, Terrawatu, in Tanzania was still going strong, and after 10 years, I trusted my local staff to keep things alive and well, as we were family by that point, wanting the same things and sharing the same purpose of serving the community. I felt a little guilty, as the Mom of Terrawatu, to be living in another country, but I wasn't too far and visited often.

My Co-Director and best soul brother, Ole Sululu flew down to Johannesburg so that we could attend the big travel trade show in Durban together and market our safaris in Tanzania. On the bus ride from Joburg to Durban, we stopped for a few days in the Drakensberg mountains to visit a destination spa and then, after the trade show, we visited a traditional healer in Zululand. I shared with Sululu the advice I was given during these visits, along with my frustrations about the projects I was involved with. As always, he listened with his heart and soul, thought for a while and said "Dada (sister) I think it may be time for you to return to the States. Go back to your tribe and share with them all you have learned here in Africa. There is a lot of sickness in your country, maybe you can help like you have helped here. You will always have a home in Africa."

At first I was not too happy. The USA is a huge and unwieldy place. How would I ever fit in there after all these years? And, my recent limited interactions with Americans had been a bit disconcerting. Everybody spoke so quickly, and admitted to being super stressed.

I made Skype dates with two people, my mother in California, and my dear girlfriend in Miami.

When I spoke to my girlfriend who lived in the same village the condo I owned was located in - Coconut Grove - she said "Well, it would be wonderful to have you back of course. And the good thing about Miami…it will never run out of money, or water." Having spent a good part of my time in Tanzania helping communities get access to water, and often going without showers myself due to changing climate conditions on the equator, abundant water was a strong selling point. And money, well, I knew there was a lot of it in Miami…how it got there I knew was an interesting story and how to get a little share of it was probably going to be even more interesting.

My mom was very sweet. When I told her I was used to being a big fish in a small pond (or no pond at all given the fact there was little water ;) and I was nervous to come back to the big American lake…she replied "well, the good thing is, you learned how to swim."

I considered my options for a couple of weeks, reflecting on life, my purpose, and my next move. Eventually it came to me…how bad can it be Tanya, really? You can inform your fabulous tenants that you are coming back. They took such wonderful care of your beautiful home overlooking the trees, it would be easy to slide back in. The climate in Miami is the same as what you are used to, especially in coastal Tanzania…you wouldn't even need a new wardrobe! And you could still get away without wearing socks most of the year. You could still eat your papaya for breakfast, and mangoes during season, and from all indication…Latin time is the same as African time…get anywhere an hour late and you are still early. Plus -- and this is a big huge plus after living with power cuts that lasted up to 18hrs in Tanzania -- there was near constant electricity!!! I'd bring my solar charges for my devices in case of hurricanes and I began to look forward to living without such heavy security as in South Africa. I could get a car again, and have access to super speedy and cheap Internet. The transition shouldn't be that difficult, right?!?

[to be continued...]

Dr. Tanya in action during the opening of one of Terrawatu’s Computer Centres in Arusha region, Tanzania

Leading a group of American college students through the Tanzanian bush

A normal day of work included meeting with these lovely ladies in Mkonoo, assisting them to plant medicinal trees and create traditional handicrafts

Another one of my offices, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background

I love being a change agent, and getting to hang out with my inspirations…there’s me with Dr. Jane Goodall at TEDGlobal 2007