Less Simple Gifts

by zunguzungu

I know at least four children named Gifty, which is the name “Gift” automatically suffixed by the obligatory “i” sound at the end of any word that doesn’t end in a vowel (I’m named “Aaroni” and I’m an “Mmerikani,” for example, though one of my favorite quirks of the swahili language is that when there actually is an i sound at the end of the word, they often omit it). It’s a common name because gift giving is both important and totally wrapped up with every kind of social relation; people say “Karibu” when they meet each other because they expect to solidify a greeting by having you over for dinner some time. Miriam (who lives in a one room mud-walled shack) told me that if I ever needed the twenty cents necessary to ride the daladala, I should ask her for it, and she was serious. People will often ask for a “zawadi” (gift) from America, or the money for a soda, or street food. I waffle on the first (what is that they want?) but almost always buckle on the second. And when we went to the Barabaig village in Katesh, we brought sugar packets for the women and pens for the children.

So I know that its important, but there’s still something basically incomprehensible about the whole process. I don’t mean that there aren’t basic unspoken rules that people use to navigate their social interactions; there are, and I don’t think its even a tremendously complex thing. People give gifts when they have something and expect to be given gifts when they don’t. As Mr. Kimaro once told me, in the past (and he was talking about his childhood, not days of yore) most people all ate the same food and all had the same lifestyle, so a kind of natural communal solidarity was combined with the fact that no one really had anything worth envying anyway. It didn’t really matter if you went to visit a friend or if he visited you. Eventually, it would all even out, so gift giving becomes the grease that keeps the social wheels moving.

What makes it all weird for me now is that we wazungu are both markedly different and are totally and ostentatiously laden with objects worth envying. So there’s a sense in which it will never even out. Not only can I not invite people to my home, for all extents and purposes not having one (and everyone has a home), but the invitation to visit with someone else is almost always suffused with an overtone of expectations that cannot be fulfilled. What will the Wazungu bring? What can he do to help us? Such questions are at the back of so many of my interactions with local folks, and the answers are stubbornly unclear, precisely because the mzungu lifestyle just exists outside of the normal world. As incomprehensible as the source of our limitless wealth is, just so incomprehensible is the sense of what it might be right or fair for us to give to those who have less.

So, when people ask for a zawadi, I always get the sinking feeling of knowing that a social failure is on the horizon. Mama Loi took Anton and I in for lunch one day and then got us drunk on Mbege, a local and repulsive banana beer, but when she started telling us to bring her a zawadi from town, I’ve pretty much avoided her ever since. Now, you’re probably saying to yourself, give her a damn gift, Aaron, stop being so stingy. What ever happened to those sugar packets? Well, every gift I’ve given has gone wrong, from the Kanga I gave to Aurelia (inadvertantly giving a twelve year old the gift one gives to the girl one is courting) to the spice boat I gave to mama (which has lain abandoned and unused in a corner, the superfluity of its curries making a mockery of my effort). You can give gifts to people that are more urban and sophisticated, of course, since they know what you’ve got and you know what they want and when people tell you what they want (“Nipe soda!”), then it’s easy. But everytime I’ve tried to imagine what to give someone in the village, I’ve either been either wrong or wronger, just in a humorous way.

Let me grab another example. It was Aurelia’s birthday yesterday, and she co-opted the lunch I had tried to cook for some of the teachers at school into a birthday party; at first I freaked out, but once her mother let her know that she could not, the day of, invite an extra 25 people, all was pretty much well. We cooked a peanut stir fry and a soy sauce stir fry, and there was enough and pretty much everyone seemed happy. Anton even managed to get a cake, and since we ran out of silverware, Aurelia invented on the spot a strange wedding-cake like ritual, where aurelia fed each and every one of us, in order of hierarchy, a piece of cake with a fork like a priest giving communion (and, by the way, Tanzanian wedding cake is goat, and they tell you this fact exactly as I just have). But the whole thing about celebrating one’s birthday totally made Aurelia crazy that day. Tanzanians don’t celebrate birthdays the way wazungu do (or at all, really), so all Aurelia knew was that Wazungu make a big deal out of Siku ya Kuzaliwa, and this weird combination of unbounded expectations and cultural disconnect (what do I know about what a Tanzanian kid wants for her birthday?) inevitably leads to inevitable disappointment. She cried at least twice that day, and I can think of at least three separate occasions where I disappointed her, simply by not realizing what she wanted or not feeling like I needed to give it to her (meat for 25 kids not being cheap). But the best illustration, to me, is the way that the night before she came to ask me for some colored pencils (which I did not have) because she wanted to color the birthday card she had made for herself. Now, I find the spectacle of a child writing a birthday card to herself almost unbearably tragic, but she was just kind of struggling to play, according to rules she didn’t quite know, a game that inevitably turns out to be not as much fun as expected. And, indeed, the solumn way the kids were forced to serve food to their elders at Aurelia’s birthday “party,” to me, spoke volumes about how weirdly imperfect any attempt to have a western birthday party according to Tanzanian rules of etiquette are likely to be. When we sang happy birthday, one teacher stopped us so he could show us how to sing it right, so we had to dutifully start over and sing it correctly, like recruits being drilled on correct marching order. And, since one must always have the tv on for social occasions, as a display of prosperity, we spent most of the time watching American televeangelists talk about, I kid you not, the onus on the poor to give gifts to the rich. Making a a grand sweeping metaphor out of that coincidence is beyond my ability as a blogger, so I’ll just throw it out there unremarked.

Maybe birthday parties are always disappointing. And maybe gifts are never quite as good as they should be. Its good someties to remember that not everything is, in the final analysis, about you and the trials and tribulations of being mzungu. But if the distance between hope and reality is just a fact of life in general, it does have a tendency to look like a chasm for wazungu trying to navigate the Tanzanian social world. You simply are too good to be true, and people are always disappointed when they find out that the true you isn’t nearly as good as they had expected.