Somebody once said that parting was sweet sorrow or some such crap like that, but clearly that person never had the opportunity to leave Tanzania, where leaving is a combination of bittersweet regret layered over with pain-in-the-ass.
The first time I left the school, it was somewhat different. After my last day of classes, I arranged to lead the whole school in singing at the end of the day. I had taught them a few songs, but that day I tried to teach them a new one: “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” done the way the Jerry Garcia band used to do it, up tempo and with an indescribable vocal inflection on the “Ho-oome” part. It’s a good song. What I didn’t realize when I selected it was that the words “Coming for to carry me home” would hit me like a baseball bat and I had no small trouble getting through it all without being overcome. Music can do that. Don’t know if the kids noticed, actually; they certainly didn’t so much learn the song as dance around like heathens while I sang to them, but its when they don’t respond to what you do that you sometimes realie how important it is.
No such drama this time. I had borrowed a guitar a few days before and that day we had sang the songs that I had taught them (and I let them strum the strings while I played the chords; some were able to sing at the same time, but most were not). Mary was able, with no prompting or practice, to sing the entire song from memory and she has a good voice. The others varied in quality; my favorite was Aziza, who gamely sang the few words she knew at her customary four decibal level, and it actually caused the kids to quiet down and strain to hear. And of course everyone wanted to do it; the average American kid of that age might view the prospect of singing in front of their class, unaccompanied, a song they barely knew in a language barely knew, as more fearful than grim death and taxes themselves, but these kids were chomping at the bit to get their chance.
On the last day of school, there were major complaints that I had not brought the guitar, and there were more general complaints about the fact that I actually intended to treat the day as an actual day of school. The implied contract which governs their sense of classroom justice had not merely been violated, it had been brutally desecrated with extreme prejudice. As a result, the usual contest of wills over whether I can cajole them into working or have to shout them into it quickly devolved into a dirty no-holds-barred alley fight: Betty of all people told me that if I gave them all these exercises, they “wouldn’t remember me when I came back,” and said it with the knowledge that she was dealing me a crusher. And this time, I blinked first, and we played hangman the whole second period. But what Betty said reminds me that it’s not a small thing that they actually expect me to return. A lot of Wazungu have come to teach them, but as Omari noted one time (and I smile just to remember him saying it), I’m the only one who has ever come back.
But the departure drags on. Although I’ve got my lines down (I hope to return, “Mungu Akipenda”/God Willing, etc), I actually don’t know if I will come back to teach. Three months seems like a blink of an eye here, but it can be an eternity in the life of a student, and making time for eternity was a trick that Emily Dickinson spent her career trying to figure out (and I ain’t no Emily Dickinson). So its bittersweet to be constantly telling the women who sell chapatis and Vitumbua, the guys in the dukas, the street kids, my neighbors, the family, the teachers, and everyone else, that I hope to return when I know I may not. The kind of residence I’ve been carrying on here, where I have a job and I have a family and I have a reason for being, and when I’m in the same place for a time, even so short a time; this I may not be able to repeat. So many people that have become a part of my life and I’ve become a part of theirs, often without even knowing their names, simply because I’ve stayed. There’s a flycatcher who used to follow me across town, badgering me to buy one of his stupid batiks for up to an hour, and I used to avoid him like I avoid doing laundry; yesterday, we had a pleasant conversation as he hassled me in a light-hearted way, both of us knowing that I was not going to buy anything but that I was eventually going to give him 300 shillings for “chai.” It was kind of like rehearsing an argument for a play; we were less interested in the words than the performance and both noted variations, innovations, and mistakes in the other’s performance, the same way you critique a friend’s reading. I’ve written about the “pressure” that being Wazungu puts on human relationships, but time seems to ease that pressure. The longer you are here, the more you start to fit into a social spectrum, the more you find your place; people learn what to expect of you and you learn how to live up to those expectations (and how to avoid raising them to an impossible level). I’ll miss that flycatcher guy, in a weird way, and he seemed genuinely sorry to hear that I was leaving; most of his ilk look forward to the admission that you are leaving, because it gives them a lever to sell you souvenirs.
Its far worse talking to the people on the street around my house, the people I see every day. Many of them will be gone if I return, transience being a fact of life, and most have neither address nor literacy, so the idea of “we’ll stay in touch,” always an optimistic fantasy, is patently impossible. The mamas who sell the chapatis told me they’d cry when I leave, and then hit me up for a picture of myself to leave with them. I have a picture that a guy on the street took of me and gave to me the next day, and I’m going to try to find him and get him to take pictures of me with them, thus solving several problems, both throwing him some business for his good turn and settling the chapati ladies. But I only learned his name yesterday, and the chances of getting it all arranged before I leave seems remote; chances are I’ll just leave them that one picture and let them fight it out. And there are just too many people to tell, too many social relationships to try to gracefully bring to a close.
And, of course, gifts. I gave Julius a sportcoat I had bought for about 7 dollars one day, and he seemed delighted. He wore it the next day for church. And I gave my swahili dictionary to Antony (Aurelia’s brother). When I asked him if he could use it, he was at a profound loss for words; when you give something, you usually just give it (asking if someone wants something, I momentarily forgot, is a tacit signal that you don’t want to give it), and Antony is both scrupulously polite and also really wanted that dictionary. When I put it in his hands, he hugged me and he looked like he would literally dance for joy. A few minutes later, when I was walking through the room with my toothbrush, I saw him kissing the book, and there was nothing performed about it. That was a good gift. I took Aurelia out for lunch at McMoody’s. I gave Mr. Busie some money for his upcoming wedding (under the pretext of giving him money for the busfare to visit his fiancee, both of us pretending the busfare was twenty times what it really is). I gave sister a scarf from Zanzibar. I got mama a kitenge. I gave Aurelia a bag that I picked up in Zanizibar.
Mama and Baba have given me gifts to bring to my parents, and I have nothing very interesting to give them. I’ll send them a package of gifts from the States, once I think of something, and I’ll find something to put in it for little Riziki, who doesn’t realize I’m leaving, and who I’ve started to have a really good relationship with. He was a toddler when I was here the first time (he used to steal things from my room, but he would always put them in the same place, so all I had to do was retrieve whatever it was from underneath his pillow). Now he’s turning into a person, and although its taken some time, I’ve found ways to interact with him. Every evening, I try to steal his food after my food is finished, and its become a ritual; he used to take it quite seriously, once getting really angry, but now its pretty much expected and he waits for it, sitting right next to me to invite such predation. Last night, he came into my room while I was packing and ratted out Aurelia for having lifted a five hundred shilling bill from my bedside table (about 40 cents, and I don’t hold it against her if she did, since that bill was probably next to much larger bills she would have elected not to take). It was strange, since usually our child-level swahili’s don’t match up at all and we find each other mutually incomprehensible; suddenly it was like we were talking as brothers. Sometimes, when I come home, he’ll run towards me shouting my name and grabbing my legs. Sometimes he wants nothing to do with me (a six year old’s mental world is complex) but I’ve recently learned that his nickname is Rizzy and he’s learned that I drink coffee every morning, and so he does too. The pressure lifts in that way.
I’ll still have to tell Miriam that I’m leaving; I gave her warning a few weeks ago, but she has probably forgotten (or will pretend for dramatic effect), and I’ll try to cushion the blow by bringing her a guest for soda and cakes, but I’m running out of time and I’m afraid I’ll probabaly end up cutting it short. We’ll see. My best local friend last time was a Maasai guy named Manasi who worked as a guard in the village, and he took me to Ngorongoro crater to meet his parents; the incredible pictures I took don’t come close to matching my memories. But no one knows where he is, though some of the Masaai I’ve asked will say that they vaguely know who I’m talking about. It’s different with wazungu who have email addresses and regular addresses, phone numbers, and jobs and homes; when you know that someone could go anywhere without notice, you both appreciate the brief moments for what they are and feel their brevity. That’s the bittersweet. And of course the kind of calculations and guessing games I’m trying to put together are the pain in the ass (will the guy with the camera be hanging around the shop today? Will I have time to take pictures with him if he is or will I need to be elsewhere, and so forth), but that will fade and all I’ll remember is the people and the things they said to make me feel welcomed back. Parting is sweet sorrow in memory, but pretty soon that’s all that’s left of our departures anyway, I guess. So maybe Shakespeare wasn’t so dumb after all.
PS — if you say the word “bye” as it appears when written, according to swahili pronunciation, it sounds like “bye-yay.” This is what the children say; I’m adopting it.