Reading zunguzungu, march-may 2007

by zunguzungu

Since I’m swamped with all sorts of real world stuff (Tarzan! Roosevelt! Stanley! Woohoo!), it’s re-run time. From this blog’s very first post:

“…the amazing thing is, after we wait an hour or so in the departure lounge for a flight that is not written on the “departures” board and for which, I am almost positive, there exists no formal record in any flight log, they take us out to a tiny little prop plane, we get in it, we take off, we land, and we find that we have indeed arrived in Zanzibar. I must really be an mzungu, because these things surprise me.

“I’ve called this blog “zunguzungu” because its one of the things that children shout out at you as you pass. Mzungu means “foreigner,” sort of; it has shades of meaning that specifically refer to a person with money, generally (but not necessarily) a white person, and has particular reference to the kind of person who is used to having his passport checked multiple times before flying to another country, to getting righteously angry when his flight is delayed, and to checking in with friends or family immediately before and after the flight lands. But in Tanzania, I find that its an almost existential problem that faces a Westernized person once they arrive: are you an mzungu?

“On one level, you absolutely are–of course you are, and you know it. But that’s the thing. You strive not to be, even without realizing it. No one wants to be a tourist, no one wants to be one of those inappropriatedly dressed water buffalo taking pictures of street venders and gliding across the surface of the society with none of the deep, penetrating social insight that you, the non-tourist, employ as you see directly into the heart of this strange place. Well, maybe you don’t say that, but you think it, don’t you? Or at least you strive to be that person.

“The Tanzanians, on the other hand, laugh at the wazungu who have come all this way from the same place and they don’t even greet each other when they see each other on the street. Look! Another wazungu! But the wazungu don’t want to greet each other, don’t want to be reminded of their zunguzungu, so they avert their eyes or give a curt little nod and pass by.”

This blog started as a kind of travel blog that never quite stopped, and though there was a lull after I left TZ and before I figured out that I wanted to keep writing on it, I‘m glad I did. I hope there’s still some of that travel-blog mojo left in there. I was reading through old posts as a kind of spring-cleaning thing; it’s interesting to see how my style has changed in the last 500 or so posts, not to mention my ability to manipulate wordpress (which at the beginning was non-existent, as my erratic typeface illustrates). And it’s comforting to discover that those early entries are relatively poorly written. If nothing else, blogging has been a kind of invaluable writing practice that has made me a substantially better writer (though bringing with it certain stylistic tics I’m iffy about).

Anyway, if you’re interested, I’ve categorized the posts from my Tanzania trip as When I were in Tanzania. A few of the ones that it pleased me to re-read were “The Patriarchy Becomes Them,”  “Pressure!” and “Less Simple Gifts.” And I’ll leave you with one of the last posts I wrote, just before I left but looking forward:

…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 today, 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 obsolescence 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.”