Simple Gifts, pt 2

by zunguzungu

All week, the kids had been pestering me about going swimming. You are taking us swimming on saturday? Can you swim? Will you throw the coins to the bottom? There were a lot of variations on this theme, and I had thought that they were simply using the venerable tactic of telling you what you are going to do and, if you don’t demur strongly enough, accusing you of having promised to do it. As I mentioned, “teacher Jessica” (a minor legend in the succession of Wazungu teachers) had already taken them swimming once, and although almost none of them can swim (only Omari, apparently, who lives near a cattle watering ditch or something), it seemed to have become one of the highlights of the century, on par with the moon landing. Aurelia has taken a similar approach towards getting me to take her to McMoody’s, another of teacher Jessica’s damnable innovations; her approach was first simply to tell me what she was going to order and ask what I was going to order. She’s clever, but since she’s only twelve, I’ve still got a slight edge. “Mosquitoes” I answered, to her dismay.But on the last day of school, one of the other teachers took me aside and asked me if I could speak with Aurelia’s parents about the necessary money to take her swimming. Teacher Frank, as it turned out, had decided to take the standard six kids to the pool (which was the source of the questions) and they each needed 1000 shillings (roughly 80 cents) to go. Aurelia was afraid to ask her parents, however, so I was requested to intervene. This is not in character; Aurelia is a sweetheart of a kid, but she’s built like a dumptruck and, when pressed, has the ferocity of a drill sergeant with a peg leg and a short fuse. But she gets it from her parents, who are similarly fearsome characters, and I think there was some disappointment about her grades, which she had received that day. As it turned out, her father was indeed not pleased at the request,  though I’m not privy to why, but the request of a wazungu who is willing, when necessary, to strategically feign incomprehension is a difficult thing to refuse, so we got our way (this, by the way, is a brilliant tactic, once you’ve learned enough swahili to employ it effectively).

Nature, however, intervened. The early morning rain lasted about two hours but well long enough for Frank to cancel the swimming; dirty water, dirty roads, and so forth. But my pitiful mzungu heart was torn; the kids not only applied the full force of their persuasiveness to me (and they are manipulative devils) but it was patently obvious that it had been quite a blow.  Not only had the week been building towards it, but despite the pounding rain and mud, they were all dressed like they were going to a wedding, the kind of outfits you usually only trot out for grandparents and photography studios. It reminds me a little of the way people here don’t smile for photographs: things like getting your picture taken and going to the swimming pool are rarities, to be treated like formal occasions and so they were dressed like they were goiong to meet thepresident (and maybe even have their picture taken with him, in the bargain). So I roped Anton into helping me kill two birds with one stone. McMoodies it was to be.

McMoodies is sort of Arusha does fast food, which is to say, cheap but still overpriced (interestingly, even the kids recognized the low quality of the beef in the hamburger, which made me wonder: how bad is ground beef?  I’ve had some gamey food in Aurelia’s house, but for them to have turned up their nose at what seemed to me a perfectly nice burger?). And it sort of helps you appreciate the particular genius of McDonalds to see it being unsuccessfully emulated. But the place also kind of sucks, in most of the ways that restaurants here don’t suck: the waitstaff is rude and sort of, I don’t know, mean, which is not really a TZ characteristic. Yet Teacher Jessica, damn her eyes, had called the tune and we hapless Wazungu following in her legendary shadow had no choice but to dance to it, and McMoody’s it was.

On arrival (after a thrilling daladala ride, in which the profusion of children buying their own seats wowwed the other passengers, and several heartstopping street crossings), we discovered that we had one extra. Well, we had already picked up Gladson and Christopher, who had been waiting in the rain for two hours at the second rendevous point, but as Anton and I tried to take stock of the situation, we discovered that we had a very scruffy looking boy (though dressed in a girls shirt three or four sizes too small) sitting at the table with us, trying to look inconspicuous. I asked some of the kids who he was (honestly, I though he might be a shinda kid I didn’t know) but it eventually became apparent that he had simply seen his opportunity and joined us. But however bold a maneuver it was, he wasn’t bold enough to look me in the eyes or say his name though, so we had something of a dilemma. I asked Anton, “Do we have enough for him?” trying to find a reason to shoo him away, and Anton, to his credit, clearly hadn’t considered such a possibility. “Of course,” he said, and my senses came back to me. I tried to make the kid understand that he was welcome to join us (and it felt very tanzanian to say so), but he was not very clearly in the same room with us.

I was pretty useless with the large group of kids, as is usually the case, but Anton was ready with several games we could play until the food came, thank god. Our interloper didn’t know how to count, so he couldn’t play one of the games, but otherwise he seemed to be half-way accepted into the group. And when the food came, he found a way to eat. He wasn’t able to use the fork and knife at first (all of our kids, by theway, recognizing that this was what one does with town food, were dissecting their hamburgers with cutlery instead of eating with their hands, and used the ketchup like it was gravy on biscuits), and one of the kids had to explain to me that his problem was that he needed to wash his hands and didn’t know where to go. So I took him to the sink, and that helped; after that, he seemed aware that we weren’t going to shush him off. Some of the kids were a little surprised at the interloper’s presence, but not that much, though two of our more prissy members (Monica and Jackline) were, I think, a little offended. But Salimu, after explaining to me that though he was full he couldn’t throw away food, had the presence of mind to offer the food to our clearly famished guest. At a certain point, they started asking about how much the food cost, since they did have some money they weren’t going to spend on food. I told them it would cost 9000 shillings each, and some of them became agitated; what had they gotten themselves into? The interloper started to slink off, but after I told them it was free, he turned his flight into a hand washing errand.

After eating ($23 for 12 customers), I wanted to go home, but my young friends had other ideas. The money they would have spent on swimming was burning a hole in their pockets and Wisdom, for one, had indicated that going out to eat didn’t really seem like an outing, just something one did. The main course must still be coming. So, where to go? Shoprite, of course! Which is the other incredibly crude rip off of Wazungu commerce, a big old mall of a grocery store out on the edge of town. After more death defying street crossings (I will wake up screaming tonight), we got there and as my young pupils marched in awed silence around the store, I started to scent disaster. Everything was way too expensive, it seemed, and we had store workers following us around like the out of place kijiji kids we were; I was starting to feel bad about taking them to this place (sort of like, “Look! lots of stuff to want! but haha! You can’t have it!) but Wisdom solved the dilemma. “I will bring cake to my sisters” he announced, exactly what he needed to decided to do to make me feel better, and after some conferring, we discovered some cakes that were within their budget. And having done so, the kids were mollified enough that I was able to put them on the daladala back to the village and feel my responsibility at an end. Whew!

I could rhapsodize about the various ethical quandries in taking African children out to eat and buy like wazungu, especially when only the very richest kids were allowed to come (and the boys, but not their sisters, which was why I was particularly glad Wisdom decided to bring stuff to Mary and Betty, which I paid for), but I won’t try your patience. We also had the experience of watching our interloper friend get carried off by the shoprite security guards, for reasons that were not clear, after we had bought our cakes. What is a wazungu to do in that circumstance? I was starting to feel protective of him, but I wasn’t actually sure that he hadn’t stolen something; the swahili was simply too fast. And it was over in a minute anyway. But I will say this: kids, be they African or Wazungu, rich or poor, boy or girl, enjoy having a break in their routine, and in the simplest of ways, I was simply glad to be able to give it to them, as nothing more than a gift to some kids I’ve grown fond of.