hither to come yonder
The funny thing, though, is that after all the hullabaloo about leaving, then you actually do. I seemed unimaginable that the moment would actually come where I actually stepped onto the actual bus that would take me to the airport and that, suddenly out of nowhere, a big hulking silent emptiness descended and emptied out the moments that had been filled to overflowing with rushing about and struggling to get every last thing done. It was strange to watch the road carry me past me surroundings, silently and without fuss; suddenly, for the first time since I’ve been here, it felt like there was nothing more to do, nothing more to try to do, nothing but to let the road carry me to the airport.
When I came to Arusha for the first time three years ago, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. It was bold, in a sense, because it was also completely unthought through. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into, and absolutely no sense of what I needed to do. I knew that I had at some point for some reason decided to focus on African literature, and that I would need, at some point, to actually go to Africa. It seems reasonable, right? But that’s not enough, that’s not nearly enough. You don’t just “go to Africa”; Africa is a continent and a kind of fictional geography of cultural uniformity that doesn’t obtain at all in reality; there’s a whole universe of difference that the daladala ride between town and kijiji spans, and if “Africa” aspires to span a continent, then it really doesn’t do much for you as an analytic term. Somehow, I had to turn a preposterous concept like “going to Africa” into the reality of actually arriving somewhere.
So, somehow, out of that dizzying continent and thanks to the dizzying improbabilities of the internet, I settled on Arusha and in retrospect, it was a pretty good choice. Mzee Kimaro helped me out so much, from teaching me swahili to welcoming me into his home, and the school was about as good a way to learn to not be in America as I could have hoped for, from the way the children treated me as their teacher to the basic problem of trying to do something meaningful in a very complicated situation. And then, way too early, it was all over; out of the blue a barrage of reasons to cut my trip short made themselves known and a means of buying an earlier ticket presented itself. I came home.
But my goodbyes weren’t quite right and my departure’s abruptness left a kind of cloud over the whole thing; had I “gone to Africa” now? My swahili was coming along, but I could never claim to be fluent, could never claim to have understood a tenth of what happened around me. In some sense, I say that now, with a much better sense of some of the limitations I’ve surpassed; but if I wouldn’t have said that then, maybe I shouldn’t be so sure I’ve surpassed them now. The other day Anton and I were talking about some of our speculations and deductions about the past history of the family we stayed with and he said something which I’m not sure I had been perceptive enough to realize the first time I was here: “there’s always so much more going on than you realize.” But I did feel that I hadn’t quite done what I had gone to do; in perhaps the most important way, I understood that I hadn’t become comfortable with the idea of being an “Africanist” or at all come to terms with what that might mean, if anything. Didn’t stop me from using that fiction in an academic setting of course, didn’t stop me from using it in all the ways that such fictions are meant to be used, but I came away from the experience with a sense of its inadequacy, a sense of how little prepared I had been by my experience to believe in that fiction myself.
And so, I found a way to come back, even if I still wasn’t sure why. And when I arrived for the second time, my discovery was that I didn’t have the same passion just to be there that I had had the first time, that it was going to be complicated for different reasons. I wasn’t just here so that I could say I’d been to Africa, which I’d be lying if I claimed hadn’t been part of it the first time. What the hell was I doing here? The first night in Zanzibar, three plane flights and fifty sleepless hours from the United States, I finally lay down in my little hut and stared at the ceiling, wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. I felt lost and totally without direction, and the ninety days on my visa felt like a prison sentence. Everything was different, but familiarly so, and even if the life I was accustomed to living in Berkeley had been stripped away from me, I had no idea what life I had just popped myself into. I was tired, and I felt better in the morning, the kind of change that only a nights rest after an exhausting journey can give you. But I didn’t start to really feel that I knew what I had gotten into until a few days ago.
When I first arrived in Dar es Salaam, Liz picked me up and asked me “how’s your killer swahili?” At Berkeley, when we had been taking classes together, my swahili had been good if not killer, relatively speaking, but Liz’s stay in TZ had preceded mine, roughly coinciding with Berkeley’s decision to defund the African language’s program, and so while hers had been blossoming, my swahili had been turned under the soil to hibernate. And because I couldn’t speak a coherant sentence, Liz was given the resident rate and I was given the mzungu rate. I didn’t mind too much; I was so tired I didn’t mind anything. I was so glad to get out of Dar, the city that gets called Bongo because if you’re not smart it’ll eat you up. I couldn’t speak and I couldn’t think; I was dumb. When I bought the ticket to fly from Arusha to Dar, they gave me the resident rate without me asking for it. I didn’t even realize I’d gotten it until I tried to pay with my credit card. I spoke swahili without even trying, and when I flew into Dar the city looked different, just like any old big city. When I got the cab from the airport to the hostel, I got the resident rate; when I got there, I enjoyed arguing with the woman at the desk, was so argumentative that the cab driver barely got a word in edgewise to try to help me out. And I got the resident rate at the hostel, five dollars instead of twelve. I was such a resident that I almost forgot to tell that exit folks that I was here on a tourist visa. But I had to leave in order to notice that.
When I started trying to say goodbye to everyone, my dissatisfaction with the way I’d left last time made me sort of compulsive about saying goodbye to everyone, spending time with everyone, and I started to realize how many people I had to say goodbye to, and didn’t have time to get to everyone. Bill Monroe has an instrumental called Hither to go Yonder or Yonder to come hither or something like that and, like all instrumentals, the connection between the title and the music of an instrumental is unclear. But I like the phrase as I might be creatively misremembering it; just like when you don’t realize you’re from the country you’re from until you go abroad, you have to go yonder to come hither. You have to go away to become a resident.