on and on

by zunguzungu

But if leaving is a pain in the ass, its because it drags on and on, like this blog entry. I needed to come back to the village in order to do a whole pack of things, so I did. First I swung by the school, where I managed to snap a few pictures before the kids noticed and began clamoring to be in every picture. I let Aurelia take some pictures, and I tried to take pictures of each classroom and get as many kids involved as possible, but the battery ran out of juice before the kids did. And it turns out that these kids have become quite camera savvy; a standard four kid who looks old for her age, if you follow, demanded to see the picture I had just taken, and when I explained to her that this camera wasn’t that kind, that you couldn’t see the pictures until later, she looked at me with such pity that I had to flee. And the poor nursery kids, who were all nicely posed when the camera failed, were not even remotely taken in my pretense to have taken their picture. I tried to make a noise with my mouth, but they just looked at me like a dog that is just starting to realize you’ve taken him to the vet instead of to the park. I fled with my tail between my legs.

From there, I had plotted out my course carefully; so many people to say goodby to, so many relationships to try to gracefully fold to a close. I first walked to Miriam’s house, where I met the photographer, and acquired the pictures we had taken the day before. To back up a bit, I had showed up the day before to find that Mnama was nowhere to be found (I had prearranged the meeting), until I hassled Baraka in his shop to produce the older boy. Let me back up again; so many threads here… Baraka is a kid with a sneeringly intelligent face, maybe all of 14, that sits inside a cagelike shopwindow all day among crowds of lounging youths. He used to give me “mzungu, mzungu” until one day I demanded, smiling as hard as I could, what his name was, and let him know that mine was not mzungu. Since then, I yell “nipe tano” (give me five) and we pound our fists every time I walk by; one thing I’ve learned about kids in my time here is that it doesn’t take that much effort to win them over, it just takes sufficient determination. Or maybe it helps to be an mzungu… maybe that’s not even in question. But whereas Baraka used to mockingly notice if I went to visit Miriam (a mocking I didn’t understand, but didn’t like nevertheless; was it because she was a woman? Because I was an mzungu? Because she was noticably poorer than most? Because she was muslim? Because he was a sneering kid? All of them?), he now called me out by name, without any of the pressure in his expression that I’d come to expect. Mnama is one of the many youths who, as Anton put it, “He’s always being there,” just outside our house, and, a moment later, “I like them a lot, even though they make so much fun of us.” While Anton has become quite bongo flavor, and I’ve learned most of my street slang from him, these are the guys who I use my limited selection of lugha ya mtaani on, every evening (Niaje? Hamna Noma. Shwari? Fullo? Fullo mzuka!). Mnama is the guy who took a picture of me one day and the next gave it to me as a gift. I was quite moved, and after we talked for a while, he asked to seem my camera, so I went and fetched it, only to be confronted with the request to give it to him as a gift, an uncomfortable request, even though the gathered crowd of vijana were all doubling over, even informing me that “He is making a joke on you!”

Despite Anton’s characterization, however, when I wanted him he was nowhere to be found, so I grabbed Baraka by his metaphoric lapels and yuko wapied until Baraka identified someone who could find the guy, who led me off to his bedroom where Mnama awoke with great surprise and a kind of shy delight to take me off to find the photographer. Perhaps the camera that Mnama had been using was no longer available, or perhaps he assumed that an Mzungu would only want a real photographer, but instead of the good turn I had intended to play for a neighbor youth who usually pulls a wagon of concrete blocks for about 75 cents a day, I ended up hiring a professional photographer for 40 cents a picture. Sawa. So, the photographer discretely following in our footsteps, I first got a picture taken with Mama Ramla, then Miriam, then Miriam’s neighbor who I didn’t know (and who, it turned out, didn’t actually want a picture with me, just a picture, but under group pressure, posed with me anyway), then the chapati ladies, then basi. The picture with Miriam came out very cute; the photographer’s camera flashes several times, so after the first flash, she looked up at me, holding her little baby, and I looked back down at her, so instead of the usual posed nonsense, we’re sort of grinning at each other. (The three month year old, by the way, is called “Toh-y-bas,” a name that defied my attempt to spell it; when I wrote it down on the back of an envelope, I realized that Miriam isn’t even slightly literate; I wrote “T W I B A S” and she nodded uncertainly, and when I added another S–and there’s no way that’s how it spelled in swahili–she nodded again). I’ve become quite fond of Miriam, once I realized that she was about as selfless in her friendliness as its possible to be; she made me promise that if I ever needed money, I would come to her (if a somewhat improbable scenario, given her lack of income and the mud-house she lives in, she was unquestionably in earnest). And when I told her (as I inevitably did, every time) that I needed to go, that I was sorry that I couldn’t stay but I had shughuli nyingi, she was uncomplaining in a way that few Tanzanians are, only requesting that I pass by and say hello again some other time. A little lonely, but with a friendliness that was without pretense or expectation. Onward and upward. When I came by the next day, the photographer was already there, so I took posession of the pictures (one copy for me, one copy for them) and gave a copy to Miriam and her neighbor, Mama Ramla. I was hot and thirty, so I drank two sodas before I took my leave of Miriam; she at one point mentioned that perhaps I would take some of the local schoolkids to America with me, but when I explained the difficulties that African immigrants have in the united states, she agreed that it was better that they stay. I asked her if she wanted to go to America; she was appalled at the idea. When I got to Mama Aurelia’s, there was a pack of old men sitting around drinking beer, and they coerced me into joining them for a few minutes. We talked about the war in Iraq, about where war comes from, and about Tanzania as a very peaceful conuntry; one of the guys kept buying me sodas and Mama Chaggaz gave me two bananas and two avocadosa as a parting gift. When Mama Aurelia went inside for a moment, I seized my opportunity and presented her with the kitenge (an expensive one, twelve thousand shillings instead of the normal five) and she seemed totally unimpressed. But you never know, and anyway its important to make the gesture. On going back outside, the old guy who had kept buying me sodas started pressuring me to pass by his home and greet his family, and I conceded. Such invitations are a fact of daily life here, and although I had much to do, I suddenly started thinking about how daily life here was almost over. So off we went, trekking through the shamba until we reachedhis house, a chicken and duck farm and he attacked me with a barrage of different foods: ground up green banana mixed with milk, uji (a millet porridge), machicha (a fried green, but different than the usual mchicha), and boiled eggs. I allowed him to give me two eggs; he gave me four. I took a sip of the banana, he filled it back to the brim. Tanzanian hospitality. We talked about God, about church (he was catholic), and about the struggle to find work in TZ. Onward, and I presented the chapati ladies with their pictures. They seemed both surprised and delighted (I think they hadn’t expected me to come through) and questioned me carefully on what gifts I would bring them from America (“What gifts do you want?” was a good rejoinder, it turned out; they had no idea or were, at least, too polite to say). The older Masaai guy (although you can only tell because of the scarification–he wears Western clothes and is clearly educated) was also there, and I gave him a picture too. We had a brief discussion of economics and the state of poor people: he insisted that poor people are well taken care of in the US, whereas here they are left to die alone; my impression would have been pretty much the opposite, but I didn’t want an argument, so I let him seem to convince me. And then back around the back way which took me past the school. A few kids were still around, and waved at me; last time I saw most of them. But Riziki came flying down the hill like a bullet and took my hand. “Are you going to that hotel in town?” he asked (we took him once to an internet cafe and coffee shop). “Teacher, I will come with you. First we pass by my home and I will tear my clothes and then we will go,” so we went. As we walked, he prattled on about this and that, talking nonstop,and when we arrived at his house we did the stool, soda, cakes ritual (though I asked for bottled water only, being pretty soda-ed out) while Riziki changed out of his school uniform. Then we went into town, Riziki being careful to carry my bag and find me the best seat in the daladala.

* * *

The day went on from there, but I find myself running out of the ability to recall and recount (which is probably a good thing). And there are good stories; we bought clothes, had some funny conversations, and Riziki stole a watch (though it was returned with no harm done). And more that I’ve forgotten. There’s too many. But I forget things so fast, and there’s just too much. Keeping this blog messes with my mind in a way, since I inevitably think about things that happen as fodder to feed its gaping maw, but the problem is actually the reverse; there’s just too damn much of it to write down! I could write and write and write and still never scrape the surface. It’ll be strange to come away from that. I’ll miss and not miss the feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day; not in the academic sense of there being more books you have to pretend to have read than it is humanly possible to read (and you end up feeling burnt-out and frustrated), but in the simpler sense that there are so many things pulling you at the same time that you just keep going and going and going until the end of the day comes and you have to stop, not because you want to but simply because you have to. And then you can’t wait to wake up in the morning to start again, not because you want to but because you have to, in a different way. Sometimes I’ve been so tired I’ll almost forget my name and my swahili goes to hell, but every minute feels so precious that you get up and do what you can with it anyway, and being stretched in so many directions forces you to grow. I’ll miss that. But I won’t miss the bone-weariness of five days of teaching stacked one after another or the listless anxiety of not being in the classroom too long, and that double-bind comes with the territory, too, along with the tension of being pulled in so many directions that you start to come apart at the seams. But life in the states is of a different quality and a different texture, and you can’t help but be a different person there. To make a portentious observation, “you” aren’t what makes “you,” but the life you’re living and if you adapt to a radically different life, you become a different person. I’ll miss the person I am in Tanzania a little. I’ll miss having so many crises and fires to put out that and obligations and opportunities and so on; I’ll miss having such a sense that every minute matters. Does it sound like I’m having the graduate student equivalent of a priest’s crisis of faith? It sure seems like a lot of my fellow students are these days. But I’m not. On the contrary, actually; I feel ready to come back to Berkeley, eager even, in a way that I didn’t particularly expect. Being immersed in books, being caught in the vortex of academic solipsism, and especially the bizarre ritual of preparing, taking, and coming down from your orals exam, all these things tend to make you forget a little that its not the only reality, that there are other things to do with your waking minutes than fight to keep ahead of the planned obselescence machine that is academic discourse. Not better things, always, but other things, and I feel like I’m coming back with a sense of proportion and perspective that will help me keep that in mind, which I had sort of forgotten how to do. I don’t regret spending a year learning all I could about my three orals fields, but I don’t think I grew very much in that year. The more control you have over your life, the less you have to adapt, and the state of constant improvisation in a place as foreign to me as was TZ forces you to grow, even if it tears you apart to do it. So I’m ready to go back to my sterile, controlled environment workplace and spend some time putting myself back together. And resting, in a way that has nothing to do with sleep. But I think that if I never went back to TZ, or if I never go out into somewhere that takes me out of myself, I won’t be very happy in Berkeley. It’s going away that makes it good to come home.