My friend Alfredo asked what a typical day for me is like here in Bukoba. Alfredo and I spent summers together when we were kids at a camp in California’s Sequoia National Forest. That was my family’s annual vacation: overloading the Dodge stationwagon, having it overheat half-way up the mountains while my Dad fired off a fantastic fusillade of F-Bombs until we eventually arrived at my childhood Shangri-La. We spent one week each year on Lake Sequoia. Alfredo and I share memories rowing across the lake, my left hang lingering in the mossy water tracing infinity signs and our names in the gentle wake. During evening campfires he would play the guitar and sing. There was a whole pack of us, a band of brothers and sisters, treasuring each moment of each day as it came, enjoying and grateful for each breath of clear air. And these memories are very precious, these memories of just being happy to be alive and young when we did not yet know the specific pain life had in store for each of us.
Alfredo’s question is lovely in its simplicity. It is fitting that it came from him because like those days at camp, my days here hearken our lives back then in some ways: a forest surrounds me, time seems suspended, days are slow and communal. Alfredo’s question pulls me back to the outside world. Long, slow days have passed rapidly into weeks and now months. It is amazing how quickly I have adapted to this new habitat. I have now been in Bukoba for over 4 months, each day barely distinguishable from the last.
Each morning I wake to a crescendo of morning songbirds, my eyes practically blinking open with each sweet chirp. Inevitably one or two birds tap, tap, tap on my window like my neighbor, Brian did when we were children. Sometimes I hear the call to prayer or the cathedral bells or the horn of the M.V Victoria as she pulls into port, but mostly it is the orchestra of birds. And I wake up slowly and peacefully and rested. During the rainy season, Masika, the water falls from the sky like daggers. The birds frolic in it, and the combination of their calls and taps with the insistence of the downpours pulls me out of bed.
One of the most salient differences between my days here and my days back home in California is my position to the sun. Back home I mostly notice the sun when I am saying good-bye to it, as my world spins away from the solar arms’ embrace and I watch the sun set into the ocean’s depths. I always feel a tiny pang of nostalgia and loss under the canvas of purples, pinks, oranges and indigo: Another day is gone. In Bukoba I am up before the sun and am consistently surprised when I remember that I get to watch the sun rise. Here I am facing eastward where I can see the sun slowly peek up out of Lake Victoria as Earth rotates towards the center of our system. The same purples, pinks, oranges and indigo trail the sun who greets me with a wink of an eye announcing optimistically: Another day begins!
From 7:30 to 8:30 we eat breakfast. This is a fluid community with visiting professors, nuns and priests who come and go according to their schedules. No matter what, there will always be several of us at the table, lingering amiably over warm teas and coffee that were grown and cultivated just down the road. We eat cassava or eggs or andazi (frittery bread) or chapatti or oatmeal or seasonal fruit, depending on what is available.
At 8:30 we are out the door on our way to the university. The drive, like most activities here, is communal. Father Joseph and I usually get a ride with Father Charles. Driving with Monsignor is my favorite though, because he says this little prayer before he starts the engine and every time he recites it I wish someone had said it before my brother-in-law and Aunt had started the journeys that would end their lives in separate motorcycle accidents:
“Protect us today in all our travels
Along the road’s way
Give your warning signs
If danger is near so
I may stop until the path is clear
Be at my window and direct me through
When objects appear from out of the blue
Defend this vehicle and everyone inside
Keep me focused and be my watchful guide
Carry us safely to our destined place
This journey with your love and grace”
He recites these lines every single time before he starts the car.
The route is always the same: Along the 2 1/2 mile road we wind through banana plantations and tropical forests, stopping to pick up any students, faculty or employees of the university we might see on foot along the way. Turning onto the main road that leads to Mwanza a slopping, lush valley stretches out to the east and my eyes follow it all the way to the shores of Lake Victoria just out my left window. Every possible shade of green imaginable is visible from pale lime to deepest emerald. Children in uniforms line up outside a primary school classroom. People of all ages and sizes walk along the road, sometimes alongside a herd of goats or cattle. Small corrugated tin homes as well as large brick houses dot the landscape. Sometimes a few cows are at a watering hole. Sometimes a giant bird swoops past. If we are lucky a monkey will run across our path or jump mischievously from a branch above. The car is filled with the chatter of enthusiasm or even singing, much like day trips we used to take at camp to go white water rafting or searching for slippery water falls to slide down. The mood is consistently joyful.
When I first arrive at my office I answer my e-mails, but not before greeting every student, administrator or professor I should encounter on the short walk. To not stop, shake hands and ask about others’ families is an egregious insult here. By the time I have greeted others appropriately, answered my e-mails and done some paperwork it is time for tea break with Ocham. We talk about language, teaching, literature, poetry, movies, bad T.V., our families. I love these conversations, and they remind me of some of the precious, long talks I shared with Alfredo, my brothers and my childhood friends when we were kids and had the luxury of time that eludes so many of us in the adult, “real” world.
During one tea break, visiting professor, Dr. Kerr, remarks that the campus reminds him of a rehab clinic with its peaceful, slow pace and tranquil flora and fauna. Out the window of the canteen where we drink our tea I can see a menagerie of trees dripping with guava, mangoes, avocadoes or papaya depending on the season. The calls of the birds have become so familiar that they have simply become background music that I take for granted. Sometimes as I walk across campus I will stop simply to observe a hunting lizard, an army of unimaginably large ants or the flight of a bird I had previously only seen in pictures.
I work at a leisurely pace here, and it doesn’t even feel like I am working. During the second week of classes I was frustrated at the lack of anxiety of my students and colleagues. “Calm down” Father Joseph told me several times. So I did. I have calmed way down. I have only lost my temper twice in these four months, an unimaginable personal best. So my work is calm: I teach. I read. I see what needs to be done on campus, I write, I plan a teaching activity or workshop with Ocham, I read. Each day the entire faculty and staff eat lunch together, laughing and teasing. Every day the food is the same: beans, rice, cooked bananas, fish. Afternoons pass in the blink of an eye: I am always surprised at how quickly 4:30 comes and it is time to go home.
At home I enjoy yet another tea break, and afternoon tea is always with Father Charles. Of all the men here, he feels most like a brother to me. These afternoons remind me of times with my brothers after school when we sat around the table for a few moments to talk about our day. If the rains have stopped (they usually have by mid-day) after tea I take my afternoon walk in the forest.
How can I describe these walks?! I do not just walk a few miles down a dirt road; I walk thousands of years back in time and these few geographical miles seem to cover the entire universe. Anyone who watches me pass would see a woman walking alone, but it seems that everyone I know and love has accompanied me on at least one of these walks.
I walk along a red dirt road that bisects a part of the forest. The trees are covered with ancient vines whose tendrils have probably spent centuries embracing the trunks and branches of these pine and eucalyptus trees. Gargantuan palm trees that would fetch tens of thousands of dollars in Southern California are just as common as can be here. At any given time I see no less that 20 creatures in the panorama of my vision: frogs, lizards, white or exotically patterned butterflies, birds of all possible plumage and silhouettes from bushes to sky, monkeys. The sun sneaks through the forest canopy wherever possible and dances along the ground and in the clean air around us.
But it isn’t just the life that I can see here in the forest that beguiles, it is all the life and love that I can feel here. Genetic analysts for The National Geographic Genographic Project (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/02/080221-human-genetics_2.html) have traced the DNA of all modern humans back to a single common ancestral source (shouldn’t that actually be TWO?) from this area less than 100,000 years ago, and I don’t know how else to say this, but I can just feel those ancestors here. Somewhere not too far from here, their skeleton dust lingers. Somewhere near this forest, these long-forgotten family members lived, laughed, loved and played before their multitudes of progeny left the ancestral home to cross deserts, mountains and oceans until we eventually populated the rest of the planet. And I have seen more pre-historic skeletons and cave paintings since I have been here than I have in my entire life. These are the original ancestral burial grounds. There is something very sacred about this place for me.
I also feel the presence of others. My memories and love for friends and family back home float around like the butterflies of the forest and occasionally they land safely for a moment in my heart and linger long enough for me to appreciate them. Those who have loved me and whom I have loved are all here with me, and the children hanging from the trees laughing and waving as I pass are waving at all of us. The old women with their brightly covered dresses and headdresses who pay their respects are also paying respects to my entire family.
I’m sure the fact that I am usually listening to George Harrison’s album “All Things Must Pass” on my ipod enhances the enchantment. When I first started these walks I would listen to other music, but the juxtaposition was often too unpleasant: the whining of the Buzzcocks, the melodrama of Puccini, the anger of the Sex Pistols, the sensuality of Sade, the ostentation of Debussy, the levity of The Beach Boys all seemed wrong. Harrison just seemed to fit, so his songs combined with the magic of the forest cast a perfect spell.
As the silent echoes of ancient ancestors happily greet me in the breeze and remind me that not all of the wonders of the world can be seen:
“What I feel I can’t say…I can feel you here…
There comes a time when most of us return here
Brought back by our desire to be more perfect entities
And living through a million years of trying”
As regret and melancholy start to insinuate themselves into my thoughts:
“Beware of sadness…
That is not what you are here for”
As a Great White Egret rejoices in the miracle of flight:
“Give me love
Give me life
Give me peace on earth”
As an old man and a little girl walk ahead of me hand in hand:
“Love’s our true concern”
As each day passes and I loose myself in each moment in the forest:
“What is life?
I Dig Love.”
I only loose myself transcendentally in the forest. I inevitably trace my way back home, usually around the time the sun is setting somewhere in the West where I can’t watch.
In the evening I quickly shower and go to dinner at our dining hall. Like all of our meals, this is a convivial time. We talk about religion and politics without giving each other indigestion. Sometimes the fathers sing for me after dinner like Alfredo used to when we were kids in the Sequoia National Forest.
After dinner I retreat to my little “cottage” as Ocham calls it. Before going in I take a few moments to appreciate the moon, and it is impossible to ignore the stars, spread across the sky as if Zeus had thrown two goliath handfuls of diamonds into the air and they stuck onto his stratospheric ceiling. Once inside I talk or skype with loved ones from home. Around 10:00 I climb into bed with a book and tuck the mosquito netting around my mattress, the cricket lullaby drifting through my curtains. Invariably I drop my book, barely able to keep my eyes open. As I drift off I often imagine that I am carried up into the dark sky where from a distance I follow the sun moving slowly towards home, across this continent and then the Atlantic Ocean towards the Americas and finally up over the Sierra Nevada Mountains where my childhood heart plays. The last thought of each day is of those I love on the other side of the world, this continuously revolving planet without a beginning or an end. I imagine the sun sneaking in to optimistically warm the faces of my daughters, of Alfredo’s sleeping children, of those so dear and so far away from where I live now. As another day is gone for me I surrender to sleep and know that for all of you it is the beginning of a brand new day and that daylight is good at arriving at just the right time.