TA

by zunguzungu

I don’t know swahili well enough to say if it has the words to describe the feelings of coming back to the shinda school, but I do know that English certainly doesn’t. But I’ll get to that in a minute. The bus ride from Lushoto to Arusha was nasty, much worse than I expected. After taking a seat at a window right above where my bag was stowed (always suspicious, we wazungu), I was accosted by a man who seemed like he was trying to get at the window. I wasn’t sure what he wanted because he wasn’t speaking, wasn’t even looking at me directly, just sort of trying to push past me. Eventually I let him, and then he sat down at the window. Apparently he had been sitting there before (or so I deduced since he maintained his silence), but it is somewhat unsettling to be treated like an inanimate obstacle. And, atypically, everyone was like this: everytime I tried to speak, they either ignored me or answered cursorily, and eventually I gave up and endured the eight or so hours in silence. So I arrived in Arusha somewhat disoriented, anyway, and the bus station wasn’t where I remembered it, which confused me until I remembered that it has been three years and the “temporary” bus station is probably no longer the bus station. Luckily, the tradition of swarming on the mzungu has weathered the years, and after trying out my new strategy of telling them what I’m going to pay them (on the theory that when there are eight taxi guys coming at you, it is a buyers market), I felt right at home. Now, I lived in Arusha for just shy of three months, but I swear to you I knew every street corner we passed. I could have given the cab driver hints on the right shortcuts to use. I wanted to wave at people. I’m back! I’m back!

Phrases like “life changing” are too trite to be useful, but my time in Arusha was unquestionably a turning point in life. Having studied African literature in school, could I go to Africa and find it to be what I thought I had been studying? Being out of school, for the first time in my life, would I find the real world worth living in? Would I be able to be a reasonably good teacher teaching kids from a background so foreign to my own and in a language I knew so poorly? And, to be blunt, could I hack it? I’m being overdramatic because, at the time, I had felt like I really had something to prove; I really did think things like that, and the idea of going to “Africa” loomed large in my mind. That gave the experience of being there a kind of intensity that “normal” life almost never measures up to. I had energy to overcome every pitfall, enthusaism to get over every hump, and so forth, all because this was an adventure I had felt like I was preparing myself for for a long time. And when it ended, I went home and basked in the radiance of my reflected memory. I recommend it for everyone.

But to flash forward to now, I find myself to be a surprisingly different person in a different place in my life and I don’t seem to have that same kind of drive. Roughing it with a cold bucket shower in the dark doesn’t prove anything, like I thought it did then; it’s just not a very pleasant way to get slightly cleaner. Fighting your way through the market to get a pair of bananas for a few cents cheaper than you would have if you weren’t such a saavy customer don’t have that same pizazz. And worrying about mosquitoes and thieves and whether food and water is safe to eat every minute of the day just doesn’t do it for me the way it did then. I’ve become stodgy and comfortable in my old age. And, perhaps more importantly, having been back in grad school for the last three years, and having come to realize that its as close to a calling as I’m likely to find (and count myself blessed to have found it), I’ve been having the nagging feeling that this is something I’ve been scheming to do for so long that I forgot why I needed to do it. I mean, do I really need to go back here? How will it help me finish my dissertation? How will it help me write any of the nine papers I’ve got planned in various stages on my computer? How will it help me be a better grad student? Short answer, unfortunately, is that it probably won’t, or at least not in a direct way, the way spending my time in Doe library would. I’ve got various ways of rationalizing this trip, should any of my committe ask, but I’m pretty sure that my dissertation is not going to get written here. Erich Auerbach I am not, and my plan (which was, basically: “Read some books! Except, in Africa!”) was looking less and less well thought out the more I was here.

So I decided to go to Arusha. Now, I will try to get all the books in my suitcase read before I leave, and I know my swahili will be smooth as butter when I get on that plane, but I’ve been coming to realize that if I don’t try to do something meaningful while I’m here, something I couldn’t do in Doe library, I’ll go nuts and be angry with myself for it. I wanted to get some distance from Berkeley because I was starting to feel like my life was defined by footnotes, the limits of scholarly consensus, and the cafe on Bancroft that Foucault used to frequent. And getting that distance made me remember what’s outside of those things, made it a little clearer what I was studying and what I wasn’t. For one thing, the experience of being an mzungu in Africa is quite excellent for reminding you how radically different your life is from the life of pretty much every man, woman, and child you can see, and how simply that difference boils down to the money that is in your bank account and is not in theirs. Foornotes start to seem kind of silly. It starts to make sense that the bookstores are filled with textbooks and selfhelp books almost exclusively; hand to mouth living makes the kinds of novels I’m studying seem exactly as frivelous as they are.

So, when I was in Lushoto, contemplating teaching business English at a local college, I started remembering how moved I was by Pasian Kimaro, one of the most courageous people I ever hope to meet and the school he was racing to build before he died. And if I’m being dramatic now, its because it was and is a powerful thing. Mr Kimaro was into his sixties (an age that an awful lot of Tanzanians don’t reach) when he started building that school and he went through more than I’ll ever know to get it done. Several times it had to be relocated (the building had to begin again from scratch), multiple times the plan had to be rethought and refigured (there was a brick making endeavor that didn’t pan out, and so forth), and at all times he was completely dependent on the whims of chance and fortune. Would the right government approvals come through? Would he be able to get support from NGO’s and non profit donors? Would enough volunteer teachers come, and for long enough, that he could afford to do things like give the kids a hot lunch and keep school fees low? Would the local community support it? And since he was basically a one man dynamo, what would happen to it after he could no longer put so much energy into it? Or after he passed on. I know he thought about that, because he mentioned it to me,and in retrospect, the cancer must have been eating into him for years before it was ever diagnosed. But he had such a powerful spirit and such a belief that if he believed he could do it, he could do it, that it somehow seemed to be getting done. Kids were being taught and buildings were being built. And every day he would tell me about his trip to the lawyer, or the forms he was filling out, or the plans he had for the new buildings, and I would just marvel. Getting a residence permit in Tanzania seems to me, after watching Liz’s saga, like an impossible epic quest that I could never match up to; this man built a school.

So, after I checked into the Centre House catholic hostel (highly recommended) and totally failed to get in touch with Prosper (couldn’t get my carnfangled cell phone to work because it was out of minutes and me too stupid to figure that out; interestingly, the number you have to dial to add minutes is not the number that they tell you when you buy the minutes, but everyone knows the real number. How do they know?), I decided to boldly set forth and see what the school looked like and whether anyone was still there that remembered me. Three years is a long time. I was only there for three months (not even) and while I feel like I remember every minute I was there, what if in their minds I’ve been lost in the stream of wazungu teachers that came briefly and then left? Would the same kids be there? Would I even recognize them? And what could possibly be left of the school now that Mr. Kimaro has passed on? In my mind, he was so identified with the school he was building that it was almost inconceivable without him. What would be there?

The walk to the school was much longer than I remembered. In my mind I’ve walked that route many times, from Sokoine road in Arusha, through Unga limited, past soko mjinga, past the burning trash pile, past the goats, past the big public school and the kids playing soccer, over the stream, past the farms, and finally to the turn off the the shinda school. But as I walked it in reality, I found that it was much longer than I remembered, that so many parts of the route had dropped out of my memory. I had forgotten how you’re coated with dust after walking through Unga limited, how many people say challenging and sometimes unkind things to you and laugh as you walk through soko mjinga, how isolated the shambas seem, and then how little and tiny that industrial shipping container transformed into a classroom seems on the horizon. Things were different too; there were no factories, a bank with an ATM (an ATM, for crying out loud) and there was a long stretch of ground that was set off by barbed wire fencing, very ominous, and it wasn’t all clear what it was. I had seen a three story building from far away (the only multi-story building there at all) and had been hoping that it would turn out to be the building Kimaro had been building, but as I got closer, it seemed to be in the wrong place. And when I saw it, the container seemed so isolated and alone, all by itself; even the classroom that had been there (the first one Kimaro built) didn’t seem to be there anymore.

And then, I was there. Christopher, one of my standard 4 kids (now standard 6) was standing in the path and remembered me almost immediately. We walked toward the school and he called out for Wisdom and Gladson, two of my other favorites, who were shocked to see me and who seemed as if they were trying to decide if they remembered me. And it became clear that I had been looking in the wrong direction; there were not just one or two new buildings but four or five, including the three story building, which were located where the container had been; that was why my perspective had been all wrong. The buildings were brightly painted, and airy, and children were playing all throughout them, even though school was not in session. The rows of eucalyptus trees that Mr. Kimaro had been planting when I left had grown as tall as the kids and the whole grounds were, almost literally, a breath of fresh air from the surrounding area. And everywhere I looked was someone I remembered, whether or not they remembered me right away. Here’s the part that I lack words for.

Postscript:

I wrote this entry the day after I arrived in Arusha, and its interesting to read it after having been here and teaching two weeks. At the center house, I got into a conversation with my new friend Monica, who quite justifiably questioned me about the sustainability of the school, the extent to which a school based on fickle Wazungu labor could actually survive. Was there community support? What happened when fickle international support dries up (as it inevitably will)? I was already asking myself these kinds of questions too, wondering what had happened to the school once Mr. Kimaro was gone, but she also put a different spin on it: how idealistic was my memory? How much had the life-changingness of my experience warped my appreciation for what Kimaro had actually accomplished? Was the school, in short, really what it said it was or was it, in the final analysis, a kind of glorified tourism? The volunteer is often the highest and most potent form of the tourist, particularly virulent because he refuses to admit he is a tourist. Was what Kimaro had been doing simply a way of building a school by catering to my brand of Wazungu, one that would, in the end, prove unsustainable for that reason?

I’m still not at all sure, though the overwhelming feeling on arriving at the school was incredible joy at how (at least on the most superficial level) the school seems to be thriving, and I wanted that to still be in the entry. But questions persist. For example, after we finish exams today, the school will break for the Easter holiday. But next week “classes” will again be in session, for about a week before the intersession holiday, because some visitors are coming to visit and look at the school and we need to have a school and children and classes to show them. Who are these visitors? Why is it that their coming sets the schools schedule? What exactly is going on? I don’t yet know; no one seems to have the answers (though everyone pretty much knows the score) and Prosper is out of town so I couldn’t get the details. But rest assured that your faithful correspondant will get to the bottom of it! Immediately, that is, after I return from my five day “cultural tourism” expedition to see cave paintings and “unspoilt” native life. That, too, I will subject to the harsh scrutiny of the truth finding apparatus that is this blog, digging deep in the trenches for you, my dear reader. Immediately after I’m done being a tourist, that is. Pass me my camera and enjoy the wonderful pagan rituals of Easter!