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Tag: Tanzania

Reckoning with Blindness: Mau Mau and Guantánamo

When I was in Tanzania, I would sometimes rest my head on my hand while I was sitting at the dinner table. It was just a thing I sometimes did, one of those things you do without thinking about it: put the palm of your hand under your chin and lean forward on it. It’s comfortable. But almost every time I did that, Aurelia — one of my students, and also the daughter of the family I was living with — would ask me if I was tired. One time she just brought a cup of water and handed it to me without a word. Eventually someone told me that putting your hands like that meant you were tired, or sleepy, and that it made people wonder if I was okay. And so, in the way that you do when you’re trying to fit in, I internalized the lesson in its simplest, most easily enacted form. From that point on, I was scrupulously careful not to make that gesture. Resting my head on my hands would give an impression of my mental state that would compel sympathy, I thought, and I didn’t want to. I wanted to appear like I was okay.

Now, this may be a generalizable unit of “East African body language” and it may not be. When you’re learning a new language, you learn the simplest translation of each new word first: before you can start to master the subtle shades of meanings and emphasis and implication, you have to get a handle on the most basic “this means X in English” version of it, so you can put it to use. The same is true when you’re trying to find a way to live in a society that lives by different gestures and body language than the kind you learned when you grew up: you have to be just a bit too quick to convert the hypercomplex grammar of everyday life into something much simpler and more bit-sized than it really is, out of the sheer and undeniable need to live in the world. And I realize now, in retrospect, that my thought process was much more telling about me than any socio-cultural insight I might have thought I was getting into Tanzanian society. Since I was an often confused mzungu struggling to be a half-decent teacher of 11 year old children — one of the hardest things in the world to do, in any context — the performance of “I’m okay” was directed at myself, first and foremost. And when my own student brought me a cup of water because I was tired out from a day of teaching, I wasn’t sure how to receive it, wasn’t sure exactly what social role I as inhabiting. That’s why I remember it. It made me uncomfortable in ways I’m still unpeeling, but pushed me to think about myself in ways that still benefit me.

Only some of this has anything at all to do with the image above, but, I think, an important part. Quite a lot is excluded from this picture, which lacks the important frame: who put these men there? Who is looking on? Who is standing beside the cameraman, doubtless holding a gun? And what kind of eyes do we use when we look at them?

The first few questions are easier. These men were rounded up by the British security forces in colonial Kenya during the “state of emergency” that was declared to combat what they called the “Mau Mau” uprising. Many were tortured, and all endured terrific and pointless hardships in the hands of a small group of white settlers who insisted that Kenya was a “white man’s country.” Caroline Elkins wrote a book describing this period and its atrocities by using the phrase “Britain’s Gulag” and the term is appropriate: the lengths the colonial forces went to in Kenya in the 1950’s is one of the more horribly direct applications of industrialized human suffering in recent memory. Between 11,000 and 70,000 Gikuyu were killed — the historiographic controversy rages — but an entire society, an entire ethnicity, was targeted by a small and threatened white minority which had long been accustomed to using force as the basis of their reason for being in Africa. To be Gikuyu was to be suspect, and to be suspect was to be subject to practically unlimited violence.

Tom Mboya, a Luo, was a labor leader in Nairobi during “Operation Anvil,” and he described being rounded up this way:

“Leaving several colleagues in my office on the first floor of the Kundi building, I went down to the street. Within a few seconds I was challenged by a soldier pointing a gun at me. I raised my hands above my head as ordered and walked to him. He gave me a shove with the butt of his gun and ordered me to walk on. I was taken to a street island where other Africans were already sitting, and ordered to squat down…For hours we waited until we were ordered into a lorry and driven to a reception camp which was cordoned by barbed wire. Here we again squatted for hours. Then we were lined up and European police officers asked each of us his tribe and separated us accordingly. Those of us who were non-Kikuyu…were free to go home…”

That’s one meaning of those “orderly” rows of squatting men above; they’re somewhere in the “pipeline” by which the “hard-core” Mau Mau were to be separated from the merely African, thence to be taken to camps and “rehabilitated.” In one sense or another, the entire Gikuyu people passed through that pipeline, because that’s the level at which they were interpellated. Colonialists didn’t have much of an idea about what was going on, so they grabbed onto the kind of simplification they could use and ran with it: all Gikuyu were, as such, suspect. In the mind of the imperial machine that sought to process and pacify a rebellious people, the only thing to do with what it saw as a dark heart of Africa that it couldn’t understand or control was violence, constant and consistent violence, until it seemed comprehensible and safe again. Figure out who “they” are and put them in lines. Put them in camps. Put them in prisons. Put them in the ground.

When Caroline Elkins wrote her 2005 book, putting a frame around those men, it occasioned a fiery controversy; along with David Anderson’s superb Histories of the Hanged, a new scholarly focus on the “Mau Mau” emergency period revealed stories a thousand times more horrible than most non-Africans ever knew. During the course of the entire “emergency,” 32 settlers were killed. 32. And while the British officially estimated that “only” about 11,000 Africans were killed, even this number is virtually meaningless. When Kenya became independent in 1963, the retreating colonial power took all of its “sensitive” records with it, doing all that it could to obscure what had been done  and make their “official” account the only available truth. No one thinks the actual total is lower than that; Caroline Elkins argued that it was higher by a magnitude of ten.

She came up with this estimate by looking at demographic data and census figures, calculating the total who died (directly or indirectly through starvation, disease, and deprivation) in the hundreds of thousands by looking at how much the population could have reasonably been expected to grow. By charting the difference between where the population should have been and what it actually was recorded to have been, she calculated that the “missing” population represented the total number of Kenyans who were killed or died as an indirect result of oppression.

This method has been contested by all sorts of scholars, who find reasons to trust the absent archives on paper over the kinds of human archives which can be made out of survivors’ stories. For many of these scholars, the contempt for what Kenyans have to say about their experience drips off the page; in a letter to the LRB’s review of Elkins’ and Anderson’s books, David Elstein triumphantly declared that “The numbers make no sense: Elkins is forced back on anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’.”

I disagree with his argument, but that’s not even the important point: Elstein discounts “anecdotal testimony by ‘survivors'” and puts that word in quotations, as if the fact that a human being said it means it is not true. He prefers documents, official records, trustworthy evidence. But Elkins’ real argument is not that there is, or ever could be, a true number of African people who were killed by colonial policing and counter-terrorism, that an official figure is either available or possible. Her conclusion is simply that the orderly statistics produced by the British are the same kind of imposed “order” as those lines of suspected Mau Mau above. The reality on the ground didn’t “make sense” to them, so they transformed it, using as much violence in doing so as they had to.

These numbers become more and more meaningless the higher they climb. One can come up with reliable and verifiable figures only by excluding events and factors that were felt but went unrecorded, which went unrecorded for that very reason. The fact that Tom Mboya — Kenya’s future minister of labour — was punched with a rifle butt and made to squat in the sand for hours while it was determined which part of the country he came from… this fact is not recorded in any books. Yet it is this kind of “fact” that was recorded all across the bodies of the African people of Kenya for a decade, recorded where non-Africans would never have no know about or respect it. And when the British finally fled Kenya, they took their books and papers with them.

I’m writing about Mau Mau in this way, right now, for two reasons. One, a group of Kenyans who survived torture at the hands of the British are suing the British government. Here’s the story of one of the plaintiffs:

In 1956 Mr Mutua was a 24-year-old herdsman working for Mr Louvaine Dunman, a white settler in Kenya’s Eastern Province. Mr Dunman, a police officer in the district force, was known as “Luvai” among the Kamba people who couldn’t pronounce the name Louvaine properly. While working on Mr Dunman’s farm, Mr Mutua began supplying food to the Mau Mau rebels hiding out in the nearby forest. On or before September 17, 1957, he was arrested by Mr Dunman and five other African police officers.

According to a court document, he was repeatedly beaten by European and African officers alike and then taken, blindfolded, to a tent. Inside, he was allegedly handcuffed and pinned to the ground, with his legs pulled apart and tied or strapped down. “Having been rendered completely powerless and vulnerable,” according to the document, Mr Mutua claims that he was “castrated by one or more of the officers present”. For two days he was allegedly left without medical attention and then liberated from the camp by Mau Mau rebels. He remained in the forest for three-and-a-half years before the rebellion ended and he returned home.

Mr Mutua claims that he suffered depression, anguish, mental stress, and “intense flashbacks to the episodes of assault, including castration (and) mourned the fact that he will never have children of his own and never be with a woman”.

As this suit has proceeded, a massive trove of old records have been unearthed and admitted, records that were thought to have been “lost” but which were discovered in some moldy basement. Elkins and Anderson are working with the plaintiffs’ lawyers to process and render meaningful that new evidence (you can read Anderson’s 24 page witness statement here, if you like), which turns out to be the records which the British government didn’t want the independent government of Kenya to have, and took with them. They were covering up crimes against humanity, and this was the paper trail that they’ve been hiding. This fact makes it all the more absurd that the British government’s official defense is that the current Kenyan government is responsible. Their argument is actually that atrocities committed by a colonial government in the 1950’s are actually the responsibility of a post-independence government which not only didn’t exist when the acts were committed, but which was actually, at the time, being subjected to those atrocities.

This is the kind of absurdity to which this kind of event will reduce these people. It doesn’t “make sense” that these things were done, therefore it cannot be true. And anything that says otherwise will be suppressed, or unthought; the fact that nothing is less reliable than the official records of an officially non-existent program of torture and mass immiseration is the sort of fairly obvious fact that just happens to escape the various people who seek to downplay the claims made by Elkins or “mere survivors.”

The other reason is, of course, the release by WikiLeaks of the files which the authorities in Guantánamo Bay kept on the people they were torturing for the crime of having been imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. These events shed light on each other. They have in common the dangerous temptation to take the truths written on paper more seriously than the mere “testimony” from “survivors” whose authority you strip away as you imprison them in quotation marks. Why is it that Mohammed Nassim’s testimony wasn’t enough when he claimed that he was only detained for years because a bunch of clueless buffoons thought his name sounded similar to some other person (with the actually kind of different name of “Mullah Nassim”)? The only thing that’s new is what the authorities at Guantánamo wrote about him; the US government released Nassim’s statement years ago, because they knew that mere “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors’” is nothing any American needed to respect. And they were right, weren’t they? Until a government source admitted the truth, was it really and authoritatively true?

To come back to the point where I started, the stories we tell about “others” are so often about us. And sometimes that’s a bad thing. When David Elstein talks about how the numbers “don’t make sense” because they say something he can’t allow to be true, the story he is telling about himself is a way of covering up the atrocities committed by the people he identifies with against the people with whom he does not. Elkins’ numbers might be fuzzy, but the way “the facts” were constructed in the first place should make us look beyond the trap they represent. When “facts” are written as part of a program of unthinking the unthinkable, you need to find new methods.

But when I look at that photograph of Mau Mau detainees squatting in the dust — waiting to be tortured, killed, or released — I can’t help but, in part, see it through the experience I had as a 27 year old visitor, houseguest, teacher, scholar, tourist, and mzungu. I notice that those men are all holding their heads in their hands. And because I once struggled with what that meant, I find myself struggling, again, with what it might mean.

Part of me wonders whether those men are holding their heads in their hands with the kind of fatigue I know myself, because I, too, have known fatigue, and because they, too, are human like me. Part of me wonders whether they, like I did, thought of that gesture as a performative one, as a piece of body language that called out for human kindness by broadcasting fatigue. But it doesn’t matter, does it? They’re not the ones talking. They were put there. They were placed in that position.

Mostly, I wonder how much what I can read in pictures like that is simply the truth which men with guns are trying to inscribe on human bodies. And I wonder how much dark matter there still is in my brain, how much of what I see and know is a function of my own insularity, isolation, inexperience, and ignorance. Some of it is. I grew up in one of the whitest counties in the United States, and though “racism” isn’t quite the word for what I learned in my upbringing, I discovered in Tanzania that I had to overcome a powerful blindness that I was inadvertently raised to possess. I had to work to learn to see the humanity of people unlike me — in ways I had never anticipated — that forced me to better understand my own humanity, precisely by understanding it differently, and by understanding the limits of what I knew.

This is not knowledge, and I am not speaking about authority. The experience of living in Tanzania changed who I thought I was, by making me aware of some limitations on who I could know myself to be. We need to let Guantánamo change us in the same way. It is precisely this humility that starts to open these pictures up, because it makes us  aware that no document, no archive, no authority’s account of the “truth,” can truly tell us more about the meaning of those men squatting in the dust than about the intentions of the men with guns who put there. And it’s also about us, and the filters we inherit that prevent us from seeing “truly.” We need to learn the lesson better that we know more by thinking about precisely how little we actually know. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” all we can ever understand are the things the men with guns are trying to write, and we can read only the words which have been inscribed on their bodies, in the neat, orderly lines and barbed wire cages that security forces work to make true. Without “anecdotal testimony from ‘survivors,’” we can know very little, and we can become something — are made something — as a result. But if we lack that testimony, we can at least truthfully know that, and work to become something else.

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.

on and on

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.

bye-yay

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.

Boats

The more I’ve learned about how people live their lives here, how the economy works, and how Wazungu fit into the picture, the more I’ve come to question whether any of us have any right at all to be here. Not that I’ve concluded that we don’t; I am here, and I’m sad to leave, and I plan to return. But it’s a much more difficult question than it is often allowed to be, much more complicated ethically than arriving Wazungu generally seem to realize. I don’t know how they are thinking when they leave, what they’ve learned, what they bring back with them. But its the Americans who think they’re at camp, who don’t realize that its people’s lives their vacationing in, who really make you sick at heart to be from a wealthy Western country. There’s a game that I remember people playing, the first time I was here, in fact, that was exactly that: it involved running through villages, some combination of race and scavenging hunt (and seemed mostly to be an Australian thing), but what would have been impossible not to notice if they had not succeeded themselves in not noticing it, was that the very homes of people living in the country that was welcoming them had been transformed into a sporting field, to be trampled on. Thinking back, it seems hard to believe that those guys were as bad as I remember them being (I saw them drinking at a bar after one of their games and someone explained the rules to me), but intellectually it isn’t so far fetched; much more vicious things are done in the name of development than that, if less blatently disrespectful.
My persistant nemesis is a flycatcher who always wants to know when I’m leaving, demanding that the proper job of a tourist is to buy and leave. Because I don’t, I sometimes genuinely feel threatened by him; if they’re going to be, people tend to be subtly rude here, but there’s nothing subtle about the look in his eyes and it scares me a little bit. But its hard to put into words the lack of respect, the lack of appreciation, and the silent patronizing contempt that makes up the typical white tourist, and the only surprising thing, frankly, is that there aren’t more people like this flycatcher. It’s not to say, however, that those feelings aren’t there. But a Tanzanian that will unnecessarily hurt anyone, even the most viciously ignorant and disrespectful foreigner, is a very rare person. A lot of it is the very politeness that most Wazungu utterly lack; whatever a Tanzanian thinks of you will not stop him or her from stepping out of their way to do the decent thing, to give you directions, to let you know that you’ve got a wad of bills hanging out of your pocket, to let you know that your shoe is untied. It is so sickening to see that maturity, that decency, so utterly lacking in the people who have come to save the continent, that I lack words, and I won’t waste any more.
Liz has given me a view into how a lot of NGO’s work in this country, and I’ve tried to pass some of those stories along. I’ll try to do some more of that. Because, as pathetic and as vile as they are, the kind of ignorant viciousness of your average tourist-volunteer is nothing compared to the destructive power of corporate ignorance in the NGO world. Ultimately, the tourist-volunteers who come for a week or two, who come to lecture their elders and casually disrespect the ways of life of people they don’t begin to understand, ultimately these people will go home leaving very little behind. Their very ignorance makes them inneffectual. But NGO’s have become a fundamental part of how this country works; development aid is no joke in countries whose economies have been hamstrung by trade regulations and foreign debt, by years of Western meddling, countries that are crippled according to the very definition of the status quo. Development aid is the bread and water that keeps an incarcerated convict alive; calling it “charity” is only a way of disclaiming responsibility for the slow death that has replaced the fast one. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that, so again, I won’t waste words.
Instead, let me give a little space to Adam, Liz’s research assistant, a farmer from Amani who became a tour guide and who is now working with Liz in her journey through the dark underbelly of NGO education. We were talking the other day, and he asked, for example, if Europeans would ever let an African come to their country, to lecture them on how they live their lives, to study them, and to remake them. We started talking about African priests in white parishes in the states, and you’ve got to admit that the spectacle of a Nigerian delivering a Mass to old white folks who think someone from the next state is “foreign,” well, that’s comedy. But the question didn’t need to be answered. We all know the answer.
Here’s what he wrote:

The donors are using Africa as their market place. By using money they have managed to take control in making decisions of the activities they fund. That money is a big boat, on board are poor people, and the sailor is a funder. They take poor people everywhere they want. They use the advantages of people being poor to colonize and divide them by using their money.

The boat is a good metaphor (and Adam always talks like that), and if I can extend it I would say that the two week AIDS awareness volunteers are like people that step on board a canoe without keeping their center of balance low, who take huge strides that threaten to overturn the boat and don’t even realize they’re doing it. As the boat pitches, they complain that African boats aren’t as comfortable as Wazungu boats, that Africans haven’t yet learned to be good sailors, and soon enough they go back home to their own boats. But it’s the multinational at the tiller, USAID or the WTO or the IMF, and the trickle down effect that such “donors” have on day to day life that drives the boat into choppy waters. Adam made the point that people have been living their lives for a long time before people came along with words like “participation” or “entrepreneurialism” or “globalisation,” and if you don’t recognize that, you’re never going to understand where the boat might want to go on its own. But I feel like I’m talking in circles, so let me, again, say no more about that.
The very inadequacy of words, of discourse, and of speech reminds me of my own place here. In the US, the kind of project I’m working on seems strangely political and its not hard, in academic circles, to tell myself that what I’m doing has some connection to the real problems of the world we live in. It would be interesting to know how many academics believe that about their work. But that illusion is impossible to sustain here. Like all the other tourist-volunteers, I’ve come here for me, and if I do any good, it won’t be because of my impossibly irrelevent work, but because of the simple good one does simply by living a decent life. Being a friend, being family, being a neighbor, being a considerate stranger; these are the things that Tanzanians excel at, things that I hope to learn from and emulate. I’ve advanced my dissertation in significant ways, but the important things I’ve done here have been spending an afternoon with a lonely old woman, playing with children, and trying to be a good teacher instead of a mediocre one. And these are not things one needs to go to Africa to do. But sometimes, I guess, it helps.

Boats!

The more I’ve learned about how people live their lives here, how the economy works, and how Wazungu fit into the picture, the more I’ve come to question whether any of us have any right at all to be here. Not that I’ve concluded that we don’t; I am here, and I’m sad to leave, and I plan to return. But it’s a much more difficult question than it is often allowed to be, much more complicated ethically than arriving Wazungu generally seem to realize.  I don’t know how they are thinking when they leave, what they’ve learned, what they bring back with them. But its the Americans who think they’re at camp, who don’t realize that its people’s lives their vacationing in, who really make you sick at heart to be from a wealthy Western country. There’s a game that I remember people playing, the first time I was here, in fact, that was exactly that: it involved running through villages, some combination of race and scavenging hunt (and seemed mostly to be an Australian thing), but what would have been impossible not to notice if they had not succeeded themselves in not noticing it, was that the very homes of people living in the country that was welcoming them had been transformed into a sporting field, to be trampled on. Thinking back, it seems hard to believe that those guys were as bad as I remember them being (I saw them drinking at a bar after one of their games and someone explained the rules to me), but intellectually it isn’t so far fetched; much more vicious things are done in the name of development than that, if less blatently disrespectful.
My persistant nemesis is a flycatcher who always wants to know when I’m leaving, demanding that the proper job of a tourist is to buy and leave.  Because I don’t, I sometimes genuinely feel threatened by him; if they’re going to be, people tend to be subtly rude here, but there’s nothing subtle about the look in his eyes and it scares me a little bit. But its hard to put into words the lack of respect, the lack of appreciation, and the silent patronizing contempt that makes up the typical white tourist, and the only surprising thing, frankly, is that there aren’t more people like this flycatcher.  It’s not to say, however, that those feelings aren’t there.  But a Tanzanian that will unnecessarily hurt anyone, even the most viciously ignorant and disrespectful foreigner, is a very rare person. A lot of it is the very politeness that most Wazungu utterly lack; whatever a Tanzanian thinks of you will not stop him or her from stepping out of their way to do the decent thing, to give you directions, to let you know that you’ve got a wad of bills hanging out of your pocket, to let you know that your shoe is untied. It is so sickening to see that maturity, that decency, so utterly lacking in the people who have come to save the continent, that I lack words, and I won’t waste any more.
Liz has given me a view into how a lot of NGO’s work in this country, and I’ve tried to pass some of those stories along. I’ll try to do some more of that. Because, as pathetic and as vile as they are, the kind of ignorant viciousness of your average tourist-volunteer is nothing compared to the destructive power of corporate ignorance in the NGO world. Ultimately, the tourist-volunteers who come for a week or two, who come to lecture their elders and casually disrespect the ways of life of people they don’t begin to understand, ultimately these people will go home leaving very little behind.  Their very ignorance makes them inneffectual.  But NGO’s have become a fundamental part of how this country works; development aid is no joke in countries whose economies have been hamstrung by trade regulations and foreign debt, by years of Western meddling, countries that are crippled according to the very definition of the status quo. Development aid is the bread and water that keeps an incarcerated convict alive; calling it “charity” is only a way of disclaiming responsibility for the slow death that has replaced the fast one. I can’t put it any more bluntly than that, so again, I won’t waste words.
Instead, let me give a little space to Adam, Liz’s research assistant, a farmer from Amani who became a tour guide and who is now working with Liz in her journey through the dark underbelly of NGO education.  We were talking the other day, and he asked, for example, if Europeans would ever let an African come to their country, to lecture them on how they live their lives, to study them, and to remake them. We started talking about African priests in white parishes in the states, and you’ve got to admit that the spectacle of a Nigerian delivering a Mass to old white folks who think someone from the next state is “foreign,” well, that’s comedy.  But the question didn’t need to be answered.  We all know the answer.
Here’s what he wrote:

The donors are using Africa as their market place. By using money they have managed to take control in making decisions of the activities they fund. That money is a big boat, on board are poor people, and the sailor is a funder. They take poor people everywhere they want. They use the advantages of people being poor to colonize and divide them by using their money.

The boat is a good metaphor (and Adam always talks like that), and if I can extend it I would say that the two week AIDS awareness volunteers are like people that step on board a canoe without keeping their center of balance low, who take huge strides that threaten to overturn the boat and don’t even realize they’re doing it.  As the boat pitches, they complain that African boats aren’t as comfortable as Wazungu boats, that Africans haven’t yet learned to be good sailors, and soon enough they go back home to their own boats.  But it’s the multinational at the tiller, USAID or the WTO or the IMF, and the trickle down effect that such “donors” have on day to day life that drives the boat into choppy waters. Adam made the point that people have been living their lives for a long time before people came along with words like “participation” or “entrepreneurialism” or “globalisation,” and if you don’t recognize that, you’re never going to understand where the boat might want to go on its own.  But I feel like I’m talking in circles, so let me, again, say no more about that.
The very inadequacy of words, of discourse, and of speech reminds me of my own place here. In the US, the kind of project I’m working on seems strangely political and its not hard, in academic circles, to tell myself that what I’m doing has some connection to the real problems of the world we live in. It would be interesting to know how many academics believe that about their work.  But that illusion is impossible to sustain here. Like all the other tourist-volunteers, I’ve come here for me, and if I do any good, it won’t be because of my impossibly irrelevent work, but because of the simple good one does simply by living a decent life. Being a friend, being family, being a neighbor, being a considerate stranger; these are the things that Tanzanians excel at, things that I hope to learn from and emulate. I’ve advanced my dissertation in significant ways, but the important things I’ve done here have been spending an afternoon with a lonely old woman, playing with children, and trying to be a good teacher instead of a mediocre one.  And these are not things one needs to go to Africa to do. But sometimes, I guess, it helps.

Cast of Characters 2

Monica is seldom far from Jackline’s side (or vice versa) and they make a striking pair; Jackline is tall and fierce looking, whereas Monica always has the kind of smile that is used to getting whatever it wants on the strength of doll-like adorableness. When we were taking the kids swimming, the two of them showed up dressed like they were going to a debutante affair, plus the hip waders they were wearing because it was raining like it hasn’t since the affair with Noah and the Ark. When I went to an outdoor revival meeting, she was there (in some pathetically adorable dress) and the next morning she asked me if I was a Christian; my response was “A salaam alaikum” and the look she gave me was priceless.

Gladson Good Luck… In a standard six classroom filled with braggarts, jokesters, and show-offs, it’s easy to forget Gladson is even there, and I wonder how many times his silence has made me overlook him.  His smile is charmingly crooked, but he only smiles when you’re looking at him and he knows it, and you sometimes feel he’s only smiling for your benefit. The other day, I saw him limp slowly to the sidelines of the football pitch and sit down, looking deeply hurt, like a martyr, but a real one.  He told me that Salimu had kicked him in the shins, yet from the look of him you’d think the pain was much deeper; he sat there for a long time staring over the heads of the players into the distance.  I sat next to him in silence for a while watching the game, and told him that tomorrow he would win (kesho utashinda).  He smiled a little, but only a little. If we had a class play of the passion of christ (and we might, frankly), he would get the starring role. Yesterday, Aurelia told me that I had once joked with him, calling him a thief (“mwizi”) after he borrowed my pen and forgot to return it–this, by the way, is a joke I play with the kids at least four times a week–but with Gladson it apparently backfired.  She said he was crying after class.  I never knew.

Aurelia is a force of nature.  She looks like a mama, more like her mama than most mamas who really are mamas (and they broke the mama mold when they made Aurelia’s mama), tough and heavy as a dumptruck. In class, she can be remarkably isolated, and though her work is usually good, she doesn’t really associate with the other kids, except to fight with them. She doesn’t take disappointment well, and when she feels that the unwritten code governing how much and what kind of work she’s supposed to do has been broken, she can be absolutely impossible, particularly if she doesn’t understand why an answer is wrong and refuses to take the time to understand.  But in the street around the house we both live in, she knocks and shouts smaller (but adoring) kids around like a mongol warlod holding court, then quietly frying cassava for one of the nearby mamas. There she knows how to behave and there she seems at ease; in the house, she’s never sure if she’s allowed to be a kid or if she’s supposed to be a woman. I’ve made her cry too many times when I’ve taken a joke too far, but it always takes me by surprise; she once kept her head in her hands for half an hour when I took shooshoo off of her head one day (this is where you pretend to grab an imaginary object that is floating above someone’s head to indicate that they are being grumpy, a transaction that occurs perhaps fifty times a day). And that’s a good way to describe Aurelia, some impenetrable combination of tender kid and furious warrior, but a combination that is volatile and unpredictable. It can’t be easy to live as a child in the household she lives in–Mama and Baba are their daughter’s parents, frighteningly formidable and, though not without humor and good spirit, they can be terrifying when angry and they’re often angry–so its not surprising that she spends so much time out in the neighborhood.  She loves playing cards on the kitchen table, though, and her deck of cards looks like its been through several tornados and the washing machine a few times for good measure; every night, she’ll be playing the one card game she knows with anyone who will play (she politely refused to learn the ones we tried to teach her). When I told her I was leaving, she said nothing (in fact, when these kids are silent and expressionless is when you know something big is going on), but has since tried to bargain with me, pointing out that I could easily stay until August like Anton and holding against me the fact that I had said I was leaving in June. When Denisi told her that I was going to stay with him at his house next time I came to Tanzania, I feared for his life; Denisi is not a small kid, but if I hadn’t told Aurelia that it wasn’t true, she might have broken his nose with a spatula.

Omari has trouble with tests, but he learns things about the English language that I never meant to teach him– if you say a phrase once, there’s a good chance he’ll have learned it and be able to use variations on it by the next time you ask. He’s one of the better football players and one of the boys who I find to be moving out of my control; along with Wisdom and Eligi, he’s starting to realize that the teacher isn’t really always right and doesn’t always understand what is going on. I’ve caught him trying to talk behind my back in swahili, but his mischief is always pretty good spirited (as opposed to Eligi, who makes fun of my American accent when I’m speaking swahili, for which I’ll never forgive him). Once he asked me what a gospel song was that the nearby church was blaring over its loudspeakers, but when I turned the question back on him, he cried out, indignantly, “No, that’s a christian song, teacher!” I explained American football to him one time by tackling him and now he runs away laughing when I ask him if he wants to play American football.

Eligi makes fun of my American accent when I’m speaking swahili. To heck with him.

Riziki is perhaps the slyest student, and he manages to slip under your radar by being extremely hard working: only after untangling a string of fights that suddenly break out will you discover that the RZA (as I call him to myself) was somehow at the bottom of it, though he will by then have put together a great alibi, finished his class work and homework, and be innocently reading a children’s book as if oblivious to all the mayhem. Once Aziza (Aziza!) hit him in the small of the back so hard that the whole class went silent, and as he stretched himself upright and grimaced in pain, he looked at me and said, seriously, “This one, she is always causing trouble.” Anton and I visited him at home one day and he refused to meet our eyes the whole time but had a sort of silly smile on his face as he asked us what kind of soda we wanted and pulled out stools for us to sit on. He wants us to come back very much; several times he’s visited me at home, and the last time, as I was walking him some few steps down the road, he took my hand and cradled my arm against his chest like a baby, trying to haul me along to his house with some bizarre combination of gentleness and force. When I finally went to visit him at his house, he was sitting under a pile of children on the front step, like an overworked mall Santa Claus, but he extricated himself to walk me home (carrying only the smallest child).

Wisdom. Mzee Kimaro’s son, and the sound of his name shouted by the old man as we would sit in his mosquito laden sitting room still rings in my memory. “Wisdom!” And Wisdom would walk in, the picture of obediant filial piety and bring us soda or whatever it was. These days, there’s a glide in his stride, a certain cock of the walk glee in the way he sidles through the school.  Prosper leaves the keys with him and will often call him out of class to attend to some task or run an errand, so he’s the king of the school and he knows it. I gave him some money to buy chapatis today and when he left them in the office instead of bringing them to me, I suggested that perhaps he had eaten the chapatis himself.  The class paid close attention to the exchange; only when I answered Salimu’s query and clarified that I was really joking did I realize how serious an accusation I had made. One does not question the king without putting the kingdom in peril! He’s effortlessly bright too, even if his boredom with the work the rest of the class can handle causes him to do things sloppily and make mistakes which he knows he can correct and therefore never does. But there’s also a darkness in him that I don’t remember seeing before.  Maybe he’s just becoming a teenager. But I wonder what its like looking out the window of your classroom and seeing your father’s grave, looking as brand new as it did when they put the old man in it a year ago. And although I saw the same swagger the other day in Wisdom’s uncle, a gnarled old man who pushes a wagon filled with cement blocks for a living, I wonder how much of that braggadicio is there to protect a wound still fresh and so deep.

Cast of Characters

Saidi met me in town one day and walked me home to my doorstep, going quite far out of his way. He took me around the back side of the fence that closes off a big hunk of land adjoining the main road. On the back side it is quiet and dark from overhanging trees. “Most people they are afraid,” he said. “But me I like this way.” He didn’t like the road with all the noise and cars and people. He pointed out to me the place where people catch snakes to sell to Chinese people, as he put it. A few days ago, Saidi cut his head on an overhanging window (though he still had a smile) and from that point on he wears a hood, because the scar gets cold, he said. He looks ridiculous. And one night, when I was half asleep, I got a phone call from him, though it wasn’t clear to me that it was him. He asked me if it was my number and read the numbers out to me. And when I said yes, he hung up. The next morning, he told me he had called to see if the number I gave him was real.

My memories of Salimu from my last visit are an unending stream of mucus and inevitably filthy head and hands. We didn’t really like to get too close to him in those days. He still seems to have a runny nose a lot of the time, but I’ve been discovering that he’s actually one of the kindest and most mature kids at the school. At McMoodies, he was one of the few children to make overtures to the street kid that joined us, and at school he’s attentive and gregarious without being self-centred; its hard to describe, but he has a way of never making trouble because he’s never thinking about himself, always mediating or just doing what he’s asked with such a lack of fuss that you almost forget he’s there.

Christopher is always elusive, always half where he is and and half somewhere else. He’s one of the oldest kids in the school, and sometimes he’ll surprise you with the answer to a difficult question, but more often he just fades into the background. I try to involve him, but he’s unnassertive to such a degree that sometimes he won’t even turn in his work; he’ll do it, he just isn’t interested in having me look at it. And he’s a loner, occasionally following in the wake of the more loud and gregarious boys, but always quietly and without more than an occasional, secretive smile; yet he never seems shut out as much as shutting the world out. He was one of the two students that Aurelia invited to her birthday party (and her choice totally surprised me), but he seemed not to know what to do with his body while we were cooking. The girls stepped right into their roles of cooking and serving up food, but Christopher just sat quietly eating, perhaps also surprised to have been invited.

Aziza was the other student invited, and the second to last student I would have expected a social typhoon like Aurelia to be friends with. Aziza speaks so quietly I have to literally put me ear close to her face to hear her sometimes; she is shy to the point of making conversation unbearable, yet always with a smile. I often sit next to Aziza when I’m correcting other students papers, so she can hear the comments I’m making and perhaps learn from them. Her test scores are pretty low, but it’s so difficult to even talk with her that its as close as I can get to one on one interaction without driving her into peals of embarassment.

Betty is nine, making her younger than some of the students two grades below her. She’s bright enough to do the work, but she doesn’t have the kind of academic skills that the older kids have long mastered, things like basic neatness, arranging answers in a legible and orderly way on the page, figuring out new assignments, and so forth. I can’t decide if she’s being left behind or if sh’e unusually advanced, but I suppose that will work itself out; I’ve asked Wisdom to look out for her at home, maybe help to explain things, and he agreed, but I doubt he actually has. She’s the youngest daughter, adorable to an almost comical degree, and banks on this charm to get out of doing work she doesn’t want to do. She can be shy, but she can also fly into rages the likes of which you’ve never seen; when I refused to give her credit for having gotten the right answer quicker than Salimu, she folded her arms, clenched her face into a rictus of indignant rage, and sat down on the floor.

Betty’s older sister Mary is the middle of the three, and she has the kind of demeanor that seems to be common of many middle children who are often lost in the crowd: outward looking, rarely self-centered, and with a real seriousness of purpose. She makes expressions that defy description, eyebrows that crinkle as if she’s enraged while her mouth is smiling, and has a flinty assertiveness that make bigger and older children fear her wrath. When I first came to the Shinda school, I stopped at the Kimaro house and Mary was the one who first greeted me, though she didn’t recognize me at first. She first held the door open about a foot, telling me sternly that her mother would come and then slammed it in my face. When she realized who I was and remembered me, she was mortified.

Jacklyn, or Jack, as the other students call her, is the only standard six student who wasn’t in the standard four when I taught here before, and there was something vaguely antagonistic about our relationhip from the start. It didn’t help that I misunderstood her name and called her “Jakuba” for almost a week, until one day, overflowing with frustration, she started shouting that that was not her name. I apologized but there’s no way she was convinced. But at some point she accepted me; I now tease her every time I catch her fetching a soda for Teacher Sia at lunch time, claiming that she’s actually brought the soda for me and demanding that she hand it over. One time I told her that if she wasn’t going to give me the soda, she needed to give me the money I gave her to buy it, and after a quick exclamation of “Teacher!” she turned her back and screamed once, before turning about again and walking past me with a serene and unhurried carriage of the most utter and complete dismissal.

A Good Day

Today was a good day. There were several reasons for this; the simplest was just that I had yesterday noticed a few things that the kids were really weak on, and had thought of an easy way to do some drills on it, first orally, then in their exercise books, and the plan turned out to be a fairly good one. The second and third reasons are related: first, I ate peanut butter on my bread for breakfast and simply had more energy as a result (the family normally eats white rolls for breakfast, with coffee or tea; about an hour later, I’m ready to eat goat’s head soup while the goat is still alive. This morning, Anton was laughing at me because I was stealing rolls to eat in my room with the peanut butter, so I wouldn’t have to share. When I offered the peanut butter out for everyone, it was gone that day). And the third reason was that Prosper, the school administrator, had a teacher meeting, and although it was in Swahili, so I wasn’t able to follow it that well, I got the gist of it, and it put a little fire in my belly.

The school is in the same state of semi-crisis that its been in for a long time, for the entire length of its existence really. There aren’t enough teachers, and my leaving next week will only exacerbate a problem that my coming was a brief band-aid for. Anton preceded my arrival by a week or so, and he said that, before I came the teachers didn’t stick to the timetable at all, since there were just so many gaping holes in it. They were trying to put out as many fires as they could. Prosper had a statement that he had written, which he read to the teachers and then there was some discussion; he addressed the lack of teachers, but it isn’t simply a problem of money to hire them. To hire the right kind of teachers, people who don’t merely have a cv but who have the right kind of spirit, the right kind of heart, is very important to him. The standard in Tanzania is for teachers to show up to class ten minutes late, write some problems on the board, then go smoke a cigarette in the teacher’s loung out of earshot of the mayhem that erupts in the class after his or her departure. We have some teachers that tend towards that norm, and Prosper is putting himself under tremendous pressure not to hire any more like that. But how do you do it? The pay is not good, not good at all, because the school has to run on funds raised through school fees, and those fees have to be kept low, otherwise most of the children would not be able to afford it. When I taught at the school the first time, there were three Tanzanian teachers and three Wazungu; now its eight and two. And while the school has grown a great deal (thanks to some wazungu donors and an incredible amount of work by the Kimaro clan), the simple economics of the situation are that the teachers cannot be paid enough to retain the best ones. Frank, for example, who sometimes will teach two classes at once rather than let the kids sit idle, spent a year in Nairobi at a teachers college, and is both the best qualified and most inspired of the teachers we’ve got. He makes the timetable and knows what goes on in the school while others are joking around in the teachers lounge (and, by the way, he’s from very near Nyerere’s village and speaks of the old “mwalimu” with an awe bordering on reverence). But he told me the other day that he’s going to leave the school to start a poultry farm. I asked him if he would be a teacher if it paid better and he said, of course, and didn’t have to even think about it. But it doesn’t.

Mzee Kimaro, Prosper’s father, had a vision for this school that, in the beginning, relied on keeping fees low by bringing in Wazungu teachers, and when I was there the first time, the school relied on us heavily. We wazungu taught all the non-nursery classes and the Tanzanian teachers were largely untrained. But the school’s growth has changed things. Whereas we were pretty much on our own, pretty much teaching whatever we imagined it would be useful for them to learn, there are now books (for the teachers), curriculum, timetables, exams. And most of all, we wazungu teachers are now simply the band-aid over the most gaping holes in the school; I teach English and Math because it frees up the Tanzanian teachers to teach the classes I can’t teach, classes like Civics, Science, Kiswahili, which in the bad old days didn’t get taught at all. All of this is for the good. Yet in some ways, the growth of the school has meant that the school is more like a business and less like a charity; the fees have gone up because having actual qualified teachers has meant actually paying them real money, having eight classes instead of four has meant needing qualified teachers, and hiring teachers who look on it as a job rather than as a stint in altruism-land has meant that we have some teachers who really don’t care that much. Frank and Prosper are two of the exceptions; Frank has taken a lower paying job for the time being because he truly cares for these children and wants them to succeed, and Prosper has taken up his father’s vision at the cost of essentially giving up the life he’d been leading.

When Mzee Kimaro passed away, about a year ago, Prosper gave up his job working for a safari company in Zanzibar and came to the school to take his father’s place. There is much I don’t understand about his situation, but its not hard to see how difficult his stuation is; he’s living in a house with his father’s second wife, filled with his father’s children by the woman he married after Prosper’s mother passed away. He’s inhabiting a job that should be held by a much older man, in the tremendously uncomfortable position of having to discipline and direct a large group of teachers who are mostly older than him. He simply exudes discomfort sometimes, and walks as if there is a perpetual weight on his shoulders; in the school meeting, he read from a prepared statement because he would not have been able to speak extemporaneously, about the many things that need to be addressed, from the bad road in to the fact that certain grades have not yet been taught subjects like Civics at all. And this all went on and on. I can’t imagine. Yet he doesn’t waver or flinch from that responsibility and there is a quiet determination about him and about the school that is now his responsibility that is termendously powerful. And at the center of the school is his father’s grave, a large cement ediface with a cross, and I pass it every day walking from one classroom to another. Mzee Kimaro is still here in so many ways, and if I feel it then his family must feel it all the stronger; yet there is nothing so like his father as the way Prosper looks forward into a future without assurance, only hope.

So, as I said, I was a bit more inspired than usual, and when I went back to the classroom, I did some things I don’t normally do.

Let me set the stage: First, some of the students (but only some) have rulers and they prefer using their rulers to actually doing their work, so one constant problem that we have with them is that, when faced with an assignment that will force them to fill in boxes or blanks in a table I’ve drawn on the board, they tend to dither around with their rulers instead of working (or waiting and doing nothing until their neighbor can lend them their ruler). And second, one of my students, Wisdom, is both my favorite and also my nemesis: he’s probably the smartest one in the class, but he’s also a little too aware of it and a little full of himself. In addition, he’s Prosper’s young half-brother, and Mzee Kimaro’s son, which factors into it: he is often leaving the classroom to help Prosper with this or that and I suspect that some of his moodiness is a product of recently losing his father, if not merely the fact that he’s just becoming a teenager and all that implies. I’m extremely fond of him, but I have to hide that, because it only gives him the ability to give me even more sass.

So, as I was struggling to regulate the various ruler borrowing that was going on, not to mention the consternation and strife that it produced, I noticed that Wisdom had figured out a way to do the exercises on the board without using his ruler (instead of redrawing the boxes I had drawn, he laid out the same problems in a more linear way, and I won’t try to describe it any better than that). And I took two minutes to hold up his notebook to the rest of the class, being mock-stern with them for wasting so much time, and praising the others who then clamored to show me the various ways they had managed to do without their ruler (Betty used her dictionary as a straight edge, a few other kids just drew the lines freehand, and so forth). I did it in such a way that Wisdom took more interest in his work than he had been, and the ruler borrowing ended. The next ten minutes or so were noticeably more productive. It was a good class; I didn’t have to use the kind of verbal intimidation I resort to instead of a stick (and never let anyone tell you that words are less violent than a little physical pain).

I want to make several observations from this tiny incident. Firstly, the teacher in a class like this is always pulled in ten different directions at once. Here’s any given instant of teaching: while you are writing an assignment on the board, Aurelia is punching Omari because he has taken her ruler, Monica and Riziki are playing with their dictionary, Saidi doesn’t understand the assignment, Christopher is gazing out the window, and Betty and Maria want to go to the bathroom, all while you notice that only a few of the students have even taken out their exercise books or recognized that they are getting an assignment. And Salimu’s pen isn’t working. And Wisdom is sitting with his legs on the table. There are different responses to all of these facts, and if there were ten of you, you could give the appropriate one in each case. Since there are not, you do the best that you can (and keep in mind that once the students start working, you are also trying top give as much individualized attention to them as you can, to correct them where they are going wrong, and so forth).

But the more energy and drive you have, the more you are able to be proactive and stay one step ahead of the students. I realized only afterwards that the kind of “look at what Wisdom is doing” approach that I had taken had been just the right touch: Wisdom didn’t get too proud of himself, while the other students were both encouraged not to waste time (which is a constant problem) without me having had to be too negative and chastising, and they were (oh so briefly!) focused on their work. Multiple fires were put out at the same time. A good teacher is someone for whom that comes naturally enough that they do it many times a day; when it doesn’t, an exercise that should take them ten minutes, will take thirty, half of them will do it wrong because you didn’t correct their misunderstanding of how to do it, and Betty and Saidi will not have even gotten started because they were waiting for someone to be finished with their ruler. But another way of saying that is that to teach this kind of class well, you’ve got to have a tremendous amount of heart. It is the hardest thing I have ever or will ever do, and part of that is because it is so easy to slack off (and let me just put in here the confession that I do slack off, a lot). Saidi doesn’t understand, but will you spend two seconds correcting him instead of the minute it will take to do a proper job (or the three that would really help him). Wisdom is being disruptive in a very subtle and difficult way; can you get him to stop without playing into his hands and giving him the kind of attention he wants? Aurelia is pounding the crap out of another student; can you mediate the situation without simply snapping at her and making her cry? How do you deal with a student like Christopher, who is always daydreaming and does badly on tests as a result? How do you even have time to deal with all the problems that you haven’t even noticed because you’ve been too busy putting out the biggest fires as fast as you can?

I’m not a bad teacher of college students, I think, but that comes sort of naturally; you can just teach a seminar as an extension of the kinds of discussion classes one takes as a regular graduate student. You talk about books, you argue, you grade papers, you go home. Teaching primary education (particularly under the kinds of conditions we’re blessed with here) will take everything you can throw at it and remind you that three times as much as that would never be nearly, nearly enough. And you will love those kids in a way that surpasses description, even as you see their futures passing through your hands, hands which are too tired and too unskilled and too busy to do what’s really necessary. If only you had enough time, enough energy, enough of you, then maybe Saidi wouldn’t be failing so disastrously, maybe Salimu’s strong motivation would be yielding better results, maybe Wisdom wouldn’t be learning to go through school with a chip on his shoulder and a sneer on his lips, maybe Christopher wouldn’t be drifting farther and farther away… Yet who can blame Frank for wanting to start a poultry farm instead of being a teacher? It doesn’t pay, and he might want, for example, to start a family. Who can blame him? I’ve come to teach for less than three months, because I need to return to my work at Berkeley. Do I blame myself for that? For not helping out more? I don’t, not really. I have my life and I’m going back to it, just as Frank can only put so much of himself into the school before he has to think of himself. But at a place like Shinda, at a place where Prosper, so improbably and so inspiringly, dammit, is carrying on his father’s legacy and vision in a way that just seems too good to be true, you can’t help being aware of what you could do. If there were another three teachers. If the standard three class could be divided into two. If the standard six class could be in its own room instead of right next to the nursery school, which makes so much noise that I’m hoarse at the end of the day from shouting over them. If only I had textbooks to give them. If only we could buy them pens. If only we had clocks in the classroom. If only we could give them a better lunch than porridge. If only we had gravel to make the road a little more passable. If only, if only, if only.

 

Karibu Chakula

In honor of http://www.forgottenpie.com, I offer you the recipe for goat’s head soup.

First, get a goat’s head.

Second, take a panga (the East African agricultural knife, like a machete) and hack it into about three or four pieces. Do not remove any part of the goat’s head.

Third, put it in boiling water, and boil the living hell out of it.

Fourth, add salt.

Serves six.

It was served to me as a side to mtorii, a meat stew made with green bananas. I elected to taste it, but in the end found it slightly too astringent for my tastes, and didn’t find the prospect of tearing the tongue from the jaw as appetizing as did Riziki, to whom I bequeathed the remainder of my serving, when he wasn’t looking. What happens to the fur is a mystery to me, but not one I plan on investigating.

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