Pressure!

by zunguzungu

There’s a popular song here called “Pressure,” that you used to hear multiple times every day (I think its peaked, since I only hear it a couple times a week now). Its a duet, between a man and a woman, and although I haven’t listened closely to the words, you can tell what kinds of pressures they’re singing about (it is, after all, a pop song). Sometimes they sing in harmony, sometime they shout at each other; at one point the man tells her she’s torturing him. Its very catchy. I bought the cassette tape; mention it to me, I’ll play it for you.

I’m avoiding certain people, and it made me think of that word, pressure. One’s relationships with Tanzanians are always under a certain kind of pressure, and it can wear you down. For example, as I was walking home from town today, getting near Friend’s corner and already seeing in my mind the beans and rice (and maybe fruit salad) I was going to purchase at “Coast Dish,” a young guy with a big smile started walking next to me. He wanted to be my friend, very very much. “I think I will be your friend Kabisa!” he said. His name was Sibu, he was fresh from Mombo, in Tanga, and had come to Arusha to make a new life. Something in metalworking (chuma). His swahili was fast and colloquial and I had trouble understanding it; I didn’t try very hard. He followed me to friend’s corner, and instead of getting food, I told him I was getting on the daladala, to get rid of him (though I didn’t tell him that part). But first he wanted to get my telephone number, so (because I claimed, wrongly, that I didn’t have a pen so I wouldn’t have to open my backpack) we had to go from shop to shop until someone would let him use a pen to write my phone number on his hand. I mixed two numbers together, so he wouldn’t be able to call me, and we shook hands warmly (him calling me his besty friend) and he watched until the bus pulled away.

Now, what was that all about? I actually think that this fellow was probably more genuine than most, and not nearly as strange as you’ve probably assumed. A country bumpkin straight from Tanga, he lacked the predatory edge that so many people you meet on the street in Arusha have and was simply excited to meet a wazungu and wanted to be friends. This, however, was not the first time this had happened. This wasn’t the first time this had happened today. As I was walking to town in the morning, a guy seemed to be looking at me, so I assumed we had met before, greeted him and told him I had forgotten his name. As we talked, I realized I had miscalculated, but before I could stop myself, we were exchnging phone numbers and he was telling me how happy he was to have me as a friend, and I had to get off the daladala early to get away from him (he, unlike Sibu, actually followed me onto the bus).

This is pressure. I’m currently taking the long way home to avoid walking past Miriam’s house because she tells me, every time I see her, that I’ve gotten lost, which is the Tanzanian way of saying I haven’t come to see her and her sister enough. But when you visit someone, before you can leave they want you to come see them again, tomorrow if possible, and verbally twist your arm to get you to set a day. Anton and I let Miriam buy us a Fanta one day, and then I went with her to visit her sister and her sisters friends (in a weird Muslim version of a convent or something, nothing but women and babies), and from that moment on, Miriam has acted like the two of us went to kindergarten together, castigating me every time I see her for not coming around more often.

Something similar happened with Denisi’s family, who Anton and I went to visit one time and were hog-wrestled into visiting again on a Sunday, for lunch. I thought I had fended off all her attacks quite nicely, but Anton disagreed; he had thought that when she told us we were coming to visit on Sunday for dinner that I had, by not explicitly telling her that this was not the case, implicitly agreed, and apparently he was right, since Denisi’s mother castigated him later on the daladala one day for not showing up. I have a lot of such social failures (though so far, delightfully, they seem to catch and berate Anton). It is too easy to miscommunicate, and Tanzanians are not shy or reserved people about such things. But the real problem is simply that we are at cross purposes.

Now, possibly, you’re saying to yourself, why is Aaron such a grumpy gus? Why doesn’t he just have a damn Fanta with Miriam or eat diner with Denisi’s parents? Well, I have. Many times. And at first, it actually is quite pleasant; especially if you know some swahili, its hard to meet a stranger here, to the point that you feel like you could just walk into anyone’s house, ask what’s for dinner, and spend the evenng drinking fanta and eating cake. And you basically can. But then you realize that by dong so, you’ve just committed yourself to coming around to visit at least twice a week, and probably to visiting their friends and relatives another two or three times this week. Starting tomorrow. That is pressure; make a few more friends and you can start to spread yourself very thin, very quickly.

But let’s come at it from a different angle. Tanzanians are welcoming, fraternal people and they can be very kind to strangers and the swahili word for stranger and guest are the same thing, and all that crap, but let’s not get carried away: this is about being an mzungu. Normal Tanzanians do not have to fight off dinner invitations with a chair and flaming torch. And it would make it all so much easier if there was some kind of social system in place, a code of etiquette for how to get people to stop pestering you, or if there was, for example, a cultural way to say “no” or something. But wazungu are sort of outside the normal range of things; you’re treated differently, which can be nice, but which also means its sort of impossible to do the right thing. There are no guidelines for you to follow, nor are there accepted social limits to keep people like Sibu in line. So you have a choice: do you accept people’s hospitality, knowing that you’re making a comittment that its very difficult to keep, or do you reject it, knowing that you’re going to be assumed to be some kind of antisocial snob? And in the end, you will always make the wrong choice, if only because there’s so much weird pressure on you, and no where for it to go. Have I killed that metaphor?

Anyway, early on in my trip, there was an incident that I’ve found it difficult to shake. A young guy who was trying to sell something tried to get me to come to his shop, and I wasn’t sufficiently clear with him that I had no interest whatsoever, which he interpreted as me promising to come to his shop and defintitely buy something. After I refused to come to his shop (and after he accused me of breaking my “promise”), he put his hand on my shoulder and said “All white people are liars aren’t they?” Now I know that he was trying every trick he could think of to manipulate me and get me into his shop so he could get a commission, but this accusation still dogs me. Does Miriam think I’m a liar? Do Denisi’s parents? Am I? Is it possible to be an mzungu here and not end up collecting such a string of social trainwrecks? Probably. But the situation doesn’t make it easy (especially if you have your own agenda, like writing a dissertation, for example). That song is about the pressure of miscommunication, about the way the same words can, by being understood differently and inflected by people’s selfish desires, make a liar out of everyone; being an mzungu here has a similar effect.

Postscript: Had dinner with Miriam; she’s a fantastic cook and didn’t pressure me at all when I said I had to go. And yesterday, Sibu tracked me down again and again prevenmted me from getting to Coast dishes for late lunch; he even told me he was going to come visit me at me house. Definitely a lot weirder than I thought he was; I’m going to take a different route home to avoid him.