Another Day For You To Realize…

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
And bless
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.”

Far. Out.

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.

Chain of Fools

 

 

 

Today is April Fool’s Day, and I miss my daughters’ shenanigans. Alexandra, usually so serious and dignified, fools me every year with some elaborate scheme. But I don’t need anyone’s help in being a fool. I do a very nice job of that all by myself.

 

The beauty of writing your own story is that you can edit out the parts that do not add to the image you are trying to project, but in honor of the first day of April, I am sharing some of the conveniently edited cuts from my blogs and conversations back home. Enjoy!!

 

The first day I came to Bukoba, on the layover in Mwanza I smiled sweetly at a woman in the small airport bathroom, and it is a good thing too. I emerged from the restroom and walked into the waiting area with the back of my dress tucked up inside of my “slip” (read: Spanx). People were laughing, I thought because I was mzungu. The woman I had smiled sweetly at came over and gently fixed me up. But not before a gorgeous young priest who happens to be a good friend of Father Charles– along with all the other passengers headed to Bukoba — got an eyeful of my hindquarters.

 

The first day Monsignor took me to meet the Mother General in charge of the orphanages in Bukoba I received an early call from a certain monthly visitor. While wearing a white skirt.  And driving in the front seat of a car with beige upholstery. I waited until Monsignor got out of the car, wrapped a sweater around my waist and hightailed it into the convent. Let’s just say that the nuns and I bonded very quickly.

The first time I went to mass at the university I tripped over a step and fell, knocking the offertory basket over. The congregation howled.

 

The first day Sister Charlotte came to live here with me there was no toilet paper in her choo. I couldn’t find any in our storeroom. So I did what anyone would do: I knocked on Monsignor’s door at 10:00 at night, and asked to borrow some. He came back with an armful and a bemused grin.

 

The first day of Spring I asked the fathers if they wanted anything from the store. Father Joseph asked for a meat product, but then added, “ah, it’s a dead animal—you will most likely forget!” I was so proud that I had overcome his predicted absent mindedness that I texted him and announced roughly the equivalent of “I am so happy! I got my hands on your sausage!” He is still laughing about that, saying we are going to cause a scandal.

 

I like to imagine that I have become this elegant, exotic woman of the world, but the truth is that I am just as awkward as I was in middle school. In addition to these gaffs, my general composure (not to mention my skin and hair color) elicits plenty of chuckles. On sunny days I walk around with my rain umbrella to avoid withering in the sun and heat, and the students titter at me as I walk past. If I don’t have my umbrella I wear a scarf over my head and earn yet another nickname: “The Muslim.” While female students and colleagues here navigate the rocky paths of the university as gracefully as giraffes (which are, in case you don’t know, the height [get it?!] of grace and elegance) in their high heels I often stumble and have even fallen while wearing the most sensible shoes possible. Again, laughter.  This is a teasing culture, which suits my personality just fine. Unlike those who laughed at my awkwardness in middle school I have the comforting feeling here that people really are laughing with me even when they are laughing at me.

 

Ocham remarks one day that while he was studying in Germany he noticed that people don’t laugh at each other when someone falls down, which is quite often especially during the slippery icy months of winter (actually we both remarked that people in Germany tend not to laugh much at all). Here if you fall down everyone within observational distance will laugh at you, assuming that it was not a serious fall. This is not Schadensfreude; it is more like hahaha-aren’t-we-a-peculiar-species-trying-to-think-we-are-in-control-freude. In the northern hemisphere we seem to prefer laughing at our fellow human beings either behind their backs or in front of screens that transmit our bloopers and blunders.

 

Strangely, we are more forgiving and compassionate about the folly of the conduct of other species. We see the trials and errors of other animals as normal, even endearing:  the chimpanzees falling over each other or missing a branch while swinging are just adorable; the big cats tripping and tumbling during a failed hunting attempt are still impressive. But back home we have such unrealistic expectations about transcending our physical limitations that if I pass the bathroom and my pet cat is in the litter box she will climb out, shut the door with her back leg and give me a look over her furry shoulder that says, “if you tell the other cats about this I will use your neck as a scratching post.”

 

At home and overseas we are overly self-conscious which, ironically, makes us even more awkward.  I expect the European and American religious missionaries and aid workers to be uptight, but even the floater, hippie adventurers take themselves too seriously. I don’t know why we think we are cooler than we are. I don’t know why we don’t laugh about how bizarre it is to be a homo sapien.

 

 

Tanzanians prefer to laugh directly and collectively at our oft strange and foolish hominid behavior.

 

Which as I said, and as those of you who are close to me know, suits me just fine.  I have come to value my own absurd humanity more than ever.

 

In addition to my awkwardness, I have also made some ridiculous choices in life that I cannot hide from the world. Most notably I let my ex-husband make a complete fool out of me by ignoring the signs of his infidelity and disrespect even before I married him. But I have come to realize the value of not trying to project some false image (such an attempt would be futile for me anyway) or hiding who I really am. The more people here laugh at me, the closer we become.

 

The undergraduate who has heard the story of my unfaithful husband and my messy divorce comes to my office hours to get advice about leaving her abusive husband.

 

The male graduate student and secondary school teacher consults me about the cultural taboos and serious social consequences of not discussing puberty and menstruation with teenaged girls here (I jokingly ask him how he knew I would feel comfortable discussing that—he just laughed).

 

The colleagues who gradually feel less self-conscious when talking to me invite me to their home and tell me the rich and imperfect stories of their lives.

 

The little girl who accompanies me on my daily walks does a familiar dance, and rather than running away she just goes over to a bush, pops a squat and evacuates her bladder the way we all do. Unlike my pet cat, she doesn’t even avoid eye contact with me. She just finishes her business; we have a quick chuckle and continue our walk as she tells me about her dreams for the future.

 

I am comforted here knowing that I am not alone in my ridiculous, foolish bipedalistic condition. Here it is understood that humans are subjugated to the same laws of biology and imperfection as the other creatures of the animal kingdom are. What is often embarrassing at home—falling down, biological functions, fashion or verbal faux pas– is just normal here. When that woman in the airport in Mwanza untucked the dress from my undergarment (while laughing, of course) I think she was inspired more by my condition (and her own obvious kindness) than by the sweet smile I had given her. With that lovely pink hemline stuffed inelegantly into the elastic waistband of a piece of lingerie designed to make me look slimmer than I am, I not only showed her my haunches– I also showed her my humanity.

 

A Legacy of Monarchs

During our tea break Ocham tells me about the re-kindling of a childhood hobby. Meeting and working with him has already been the professional highlight of my fellowship. He is the one who conceptualized my work here and the one who requested “someone like me” from the U.S. Embassy in Dar Es Salaam. It is a perfect intellectual convergence. We share a fascination with the balance between descriptive language that the linguists in us embrace with the prescriptive nature of language that concerns us as educators. While I was a young girl in California pretending to teach in Africa and listening to Dolly Parton, he was a little boy in Kenya reading American literature and listening to Dolly Parton. It is like having a new childhood friend who shares my ideas and love of language, someone who really understands me.

So when he tells me how he used to collect stamps when he was younger and may return to philately I think I might be able to tell him about my renewed interest in one of my childhood hobbies too.

“This is a little bit embarrassing,” he says in his perfect British accent “but I discovered this stamp, and I think I would like to collect postage stamps again.” He shows me an infinitesimal piece of art stuck to an envelope.

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“I wish I knew what happened to that stamp collection. It really was quite lovely.”

I too long for the trophies of my childhood, collected and kept like a treasure trove until I became a too-cool-for-school teenager. Like Ocham, I am a bit embarrassed, but I just know he won’t judge me.

So I tell him.

I tell him about my wondrous insect collection, and how I used to spend afternoons collecting the corpses of tiny flying and crawling creatures, finding them in the gutters of my childhood neighborhood and under the bushes behind my school. At one point I even became a poacher- catching and killing even the de facto protected butterflies to round out my collection. I would classify each one, attaching a tiny calligraphied label identifying the genus and species to the pin impaling each one. I tell Ocham how I miss my collection too. How yesterday I found a monstrous dead dragonfly on the road and brought it home and placed it on my bookshelf. It feels so good to have someone to share these things with.

Ocham looks across the small table, the corner of his mouth curled just like his son Dylan’s (named after Dylan Thomas) and says:

“You know, LeeAnne, that is very weird.”

Thanks, Ocham.

And so the conversation shifts to insects. He tells me when he was a little boy he used to catch grasshoppers, —which are the size of Pixie Stix here—keep them in a miniature corral of twigs, pretending that he was a great Masai chief and they were his cattle.

Sure, Ocham. I’m weird.

He tells me about the beautiful butterflies (there are over 300 species in Kenya!) he used to chase as a child and how sad it was to see that same species of butterfly dead and mounted in a museum in Nairobi. “You can no longer see them floating in the wild. Now my children can only see them preserved in that museum. How sad.”

So now I feel really bad about killing those beautiful butterflies in my youth. I just wanted to capture the ephemeral beauty of those hypnotic fairies forever.

Inevitably our conversation returns to language, a safe topic for us where Ocham won’t be so judgmental. He and I always speak in English. Thank goodness we speak the same figurative language because the versions of English that he and I speak are as different as Danaus plexippus and Anomalochromis thomasi.

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As I mentioned, Ocham comes from (or as he would say “hails from”) Kenya where English and Swahili are official languages. Ocham also speaks several vernacular languages and German (I can run, but I can’t hide from that one!). When we talk he uses words like “invigilator” and “avail,” words that I thought could only be found preserved in parchment in word museums, but here they flutter around as common as could be.

Most of my Tanzanian students and colleagues also use many of the same words and pronunciations as Ocham when we speak English.  My British friends sound like Elmer Fudd by comparison. Ocham tells me about his education, how strict the teachers were about the “proper” pronunciation, reducing me to tears of laughter as he tells me about the time he gave a presentation about malaria and the teacher made him repeat the correct diction of “di ah ray ahh” over and over again.

Like Kenya, Tanzania also recognizes both English and Swahili as official languages, so I was a bit curious about being here to promote English as a Second Language. I have come to realize that for most people here in Bukoba, English is actually their third or fourth language. I am absolutely besotted (it’s contagious) with the linguistic ability of Africans. Most Bukobans speak Haya as their “mother tongue.” The language prowess of the priests I spend so much time with cannot be overstated: “We better be careful or people will think we’re Pentacosts!” Father Mgeni says one night after a dinner conversation that flew from English to Swahili to French and Italian with smatterings of German, Latin and Haya. I swear, sometimes I don’t even know what language I am swept up in.  I’m not even sure I speak any of those languages, but the swarm of words sweeps me up and I am completely mesmerized. Father Charles asked me to teach him Spanish two days ago. Last night we discussed the schedule for today…in Spanish!

One thing is sure: The Curse of Babel never touched this place. Languages live and breathe freely here.

Whenever children in the village ask me what my “mother tongue” is, and I tell them it’s English they start laughing. I mean, rolling-on-the-ground, holding-their-sides, tears-streaming-down-their-faces laughing.

“No, your MOTHER tongue, your first language!” They try to explain, thinking that I have misunderstood.  The idea that English could be someone’s first language is similar to the idea that someone would wear a red brocade cape trimmed with white leopard fur and a jewel-encrusted crown to a family dinner.

English has virtually annihilated any non-British linguistic traces of my ancestral roots.

I want to explain that my “mother-tongue” bears little resemblance to the English I teach here and back home in California. My cultural identity is reflected in my lexicon, words that come down to me from my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as well as words from the region where I grew up. I use “hick” phrases from my grandmother and my mom like ‘”womp up some vittles” and “hitch in yer giddyup;” I have incorporated words passed down from my Dad who grew up in an immigrant neighborhood where he learned colorful nouns like “putz” and “schnazola;” and having grown up in Southern California I also like to use some totally bitchen’ expressions that I share with my peers. I will start telling the children in the village that my mother tongue is a very rare language called Califappaliddishian.  And that my daughter, Victoria, claims to speak Cat as her first language. That will stop the laughter for sure.

One of the librarians asked me why the world has adopted English as the lingua franca instead of say, French. I explain to the best of my ability the waves of English’s influence: The Royal Hubris and Ambition of The British Empire combined with the results of World War II (i.e. the emergence of America as a Super Power), add the wildfire that is American popular culture disseminated at lightning speed across the worldwide web and voilà. I also cynically told him that it is basic economics (or as one of my favorite speakers of English– Richard Pryor– would say “it ain’t about nothing except some cash, man.”).

Back at the tea break with Ocham, the human tendency toward multilingualism and the concomitant tension between social languages and academic languages dominates our conversation. We both know how valuable education is. We both know how valuable English is to education in this post Post-Modern world. And we also know how valuable those vernacular languages and dialects are for our sense of identity. And we know that some of them are dying out like the butterflies of Ocham’s childhood, and in some ways we are trying to preserve a very old version of English like the butterflies of mine.

We spend a lot of time denouncing the influence and effects of colonialism, from East Africa to Ireland. We are grateful to be past that. This new English we see emerging around the world seems to have a life of its own, a quasi-non-colonial identity.  But during a short pause in our conversation we take a sip of our Earl Grey tea, and I start laughing because our movements (as well as the names of our children) contradict our declarations: Ocham and I are both holding our china cups with our pinkies up.

The Sunlight In Your Universe: In A Children’s Hospital In The Middle of Africa On My First-Born Daughter’s Twenty-Second Birthday

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When the little boy from the neighborhood sneezes, the women at the bodega say “kua na uyaone.”

“Grow and you will see…”

Once again I understand the words, but I have no idea what they mean. The women explain: When a child sneezes they do not want him to become sick and die, so they remind him to grow so that he can see what life is like.

Father Charles tells me about his grandmother, how every time he visited her he spent the first half hour with her hand on his head or shoulder repeating the same mantra, even if he wasn’t sick:

“Grow and you will see…

What life is like…

What it is like to have a best friend

What it is like to fall in love

What it is like to have your heart broken

What it is like to become a man

Grow and see what life is…”

He explains how there was nothing for a young boy to do in those moments but to accept the benedictions of his grandmother. I think of my own grandmothers—how one would rock and sing me to sleep whenever she could, the other would write me long letters trying to tell me what her life was like. I think about how my Aunt Linda’s first child died in infancy, the mysterious SIDS stealing his tiny breaths in the middle of the night. I think about how my aunt tried to climb into the tiny casket with her silenced child, and try to imagine the pain of my aunt and my grandmother who were powerless despite all of their wishes for this child to grow and see what life is like.

Charles says he was lucky that his grandmother lived so long because the life expectancy in Tanzania is only 57 years. One of the reasons the life expectancy here is so low is because the infant mortality rate is so high.

The increased vaccination rates and clean water efforts in Tanzania have recently reduced the infant mortality rates which range (according to sources) from 50-85 deaths per 1,000 births; however, Tanzania still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world.  I think about this as I leave the hospital after visiting Monsignor who has been admitted after being sick for several days.

The wind carries the cries of little children and mothers across the courtyard from the children’s ward to the small chapel where I sit alone. Twenty-two years ago today I too was in a hospital with my baby daughter who was crying — for the very first time. Today is her birthday.

That was the day that she changed the world, the day she changed my world. The center of my universe became her welfare, the orbit of my life permanently shifted to rotate around her survival. The laser-beam focus of my raison d’etre was to keep her alive. How many nights did I beg that cosmic universal force to keep her safe? How many nights did I worry? How many nights did I sneak into her bedroom just to hear her breathe?

Each birthday party was a celebration of Gatsby-esque proportions: giant bounce-house slumber parties, home-cooked Chinese New Year-themed dinners, a weekend at The Hotel del Coronado. I once even took 6 teen-aged girls to Las Vegas over Super Bowl weekend to see Coldplay in concert. Each year was more decadent than the last. And I don’t apologize for any of it. I was right to celebrate each year of life.

By the time she went off to college I had forgotten those early nights when all I asked from the universe was for her to be safe and healthy. The years had been wonderful, but not what I had intended for my daughters: an absent father, divorce, the loss of our home, betrayal of friends, financial ruin. When people lamented, “What else could go wrong?” I stopped them because I knew what else could go wrong.  Two of my dearest friends had lost their young son, Daniel. As long as we were healthy I could endure anything as a mother.

But I had stopped appreciating what a gift my daughters’ health was. In the first days of my empty nest a friend of mine from Nigeria overheard me talking about how sad I was. She set me straight:

“Do you mean to tell me that your daughter survived infancy, had no childhood illnesses, had access to a first-rate education and is now in college on a scholarship and you are CRYING? In my village we would all be CELEBRATING. Woman, you are spoiled!”

And I know she is right. I mean I really know she is right as I sit here just outside the small children’s hospital in the village of Kagondo. These cries I hear are nothing like the cries I heard twenty-two years ago in my hospital room with a team of doctors and a cache of medication that literally saved my life. The tears that night were tears of joy: the tears of a new grandmother, a new uncle, of a woman reborn. The tears here at the hospital are tears of utter despair: a father cannot afford his daughter’s surgery, a mother rolls in anguish on the grass outside, her head covered with a kitange. I tell you, any mother in America who condemns childhood vaccinations has never shared a taxi with a mother holding a baby writhing with diphtheria nor seen the life sentence of childhood polio.

I leave the chapel to see about the mother on the grass. She can’t stand. Charles explains that many people in Tanzania become temporarily paralyzed due to emotional trauma. He says that eventually she will be fine. I know she will not. She may be able to walk again, but she will most assuredly never be fine.

Soon after, a friend of mine– a doctor from Scandinavia– walks brusquely past me to the parking lot. I follow her and find her under a tree. Crying.  Someone has died. I can’t understand a word she is saying. I just hold her as she sobs. What else can I do?

(Un)fortunately I have plenty of experience consoling sobbing females. My daughters have both experienced the challenges of life, and the three of us have been through so much together that they actually believe that I can change the world. But this is the world, the mortal one, that none of us can alter.

This is my daughter’s birthday.  The day my life truly began. My dear friend Annabel tells me to do something special for myself. The only thing I can think of is to take a moment to be thankful. It is time to re-adjust the central axis of my orbit just a tiny bit and be grateful that I got so lucky twenty two years ago, and I have been lucky every day since. My worst fears never materialized. I still live for my daughters, but my main mission is accomplished: My daughters survived childhood and became beautiful, intelligent, sensitive, healthy, strong women. They have grown. They have seen what life is.

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A View To A Kill

Well, the honeymoon is over and so is my pledge not to impose my western values on Africa. It all unraveled over a simple question:

I was just making conversation over a dinner. A dinner I prepared. A dinner I prepared because the fathers asked me to. A dinner I prepared because the fathers asked me to, which I spent over two hours making over a fire on the ground for which Father Charles was precisely 40 minutes late because he was “working.” And then things went from bad to worse.

“What’s your favorite animal?” I ask.

Father Charles answers first: “The Big Five, definitely the Big Five.”

“Who are the Big Five?” I ask, undisturbed by the fact that he has apparently chosen not one, but five favorite animals.

He and the other fathers explain that “The Big Five” are the elephant, the lion, the leopard, the rhinoceros and the…buffalo. What? The buffalo? Are you kidding me? Where’s the giraffe? The zebra?

“Buffalo trumps zebra,” Father Charles says confidently, without any shame at all. “The zebra is very common, we call it the painted donkey because it is so common. Besides ‘The Big Five’ are the ‘big’ animals, and the buffalo is bigger and stronger than the zebra so…”

I can’t really argue with that, but then if we are taking about largesse of stature where the heck is my beloved giraffe on that list?

“Then what about the giraffe?” I triumphantly challenge him. ”Surely the giraffe should be there instead of the buffalo.”

Finally Monsignor defends me on what has now become an almost unforgivable insult to one of my favorite animals.

“It is true,” he defends “…the giraffe is a very polite animal, very graceful.”  He explains that the giraffe is the national animal of Tanzania, that it holds a revered place here.

But the others continue defending “The Big Five” until a debate, –the lexical equivalent of a barroom brawl in a Clint Eastwood movie– erupts between me, Father Mgeni and Father Charles. Monsignor sits quietly back and shakes his head. He can do no more for me.

Father Mgeni and Father Charles explain that “The Big Five” are so identified because of their sheer animalistic strength and prowess.

“Yes, the giraffe is very beautiful, very lovely” they acquiesce. “But not as impressive as the others, not even as impressive as the buffalo.”

So now I go in for the jugular: “So you like animals that are strong and can kill more than you like animals that are gentle and kind?” And then my my cheap shot, the inevitable ad hominem red herring: “What kind of priests are you?”

And that is how we had our first fight, thus ending a wonderful honeymoon phase. Now it’s time for a little pushback, so here are my western reactions to “The Big Five” as well as some requested changes to the gaming and safari culture in general. I am using the Swahili names of these animals 1.) to show off and B.) to show the perfection of animal nomenclature in this language.

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TEMBO: The elephant stays, and I have no problem even saying that the elephant deserves the Number One spot on this countdown. Elephants are both strong AND polite. They have been hunted, poached and displaced yet remain hopeful and kind.  They hold trunks like human lovers hold hands, they help each other out, they use their strength only as a last resort, preferring to solve problems using intergenerational education and intelligence. Here you can observe elephants flanking another elephant with large tusks to protect him from poachers. Even when males fight they don’t get very violent: one of them will eventually just give up and run away. The elephant deserves to be esteemed, and I approve of its inclusion in “The Big Five.”

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SIMBA and CHUI: The lion and the leopard also deserve inclusion in “The Big Five.” They are pretty beautiful animals even if they spend most of their lives covered in dried blood from all the other animals they have eaten and killed. Seriously. The animals in those regal wildlife photos you see have been cleaned up and photo shopped like the models on the cover of Cosmo.

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KIFARU: The rhinoceros is also pretty magnificent—it really does look like a dinosaur and it is very strong indeed. But I don’t really understand why the rhinoceros is included but not the Kiboko except for the fact that hippopotami (showing off again) are dangerous. That being said, doesn’t that then justify its inclusion in “The Big Five?” I have already seen 3 hippos in Lake Victoria and fishermen tell stories of boats being capsized by over-protective hippo mothers, but I haven’t heard many rhino stories.  I accept the rhino in “The Big Five,” but why at the exclusion of the hippo?

NYATI: And here’s where I take issue with the way things are done around here (although I am convinced that the concept of “The Big Five” is a western invention, so I can justify my challenge to the African status quo). Considering the history and fate of the buffalo in North America since the arrival of the white man you’d think I would be more appreciative of the buffalo. I guess when I stop to think about buffalos, how their meat and hides have sustained cultures across time and space, I can understand why they would be included in “The Big Five.”

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But what about my beloved twiga? Or the punda milia, fisi, nyani, even the commonplace paka, mbwa or ng’ombe? I hate lists. Why can there only be five “big” animals? Who comes up with the idea that there should only be five? Or even one favorite animal for that matter? I mean who reduces the entire wondrous animal kingdom to one singular creatu….? Oh yeah…this was how the whole argument started in the first place, wasn’t it?

I do love animals very much which is why in addition to the suspension of “The Big Five” in Tanzania I would also like to propose an “alternative” safari experience. So many people who come here on safari talk about wanting to see “a kill.” Really? I don’t get it. I admit that I am more squeamish than the average woman, having nearly passed out several times at my daughters’ lost teeth or stubbed toes, but I cannot see how watching a baboon getting ambushed and hauled off by a lion or a wildebeest having its hindquarters ripped apart mid escape by a leopard could possibly be enjoyable to anyone. My friend Laura went on safari and watched 4 lionesses threaten another lioness and her cub, then drag off the impala that the mother lioness had just taken down for her baby. Laura said it was the freakiest thing she has ever seen which is saying something because she and I had some pretty freaky adventures of our own back in high school (e.g. topless fire drills).  I understand wanting to see the animals, I just don’t understand wanting to see “the kill.” So all I’m asking for is a vegetarian safari experience. I don’t need to see simba or chui. Just give me a nice plain with some elephants, giraffes, zebras, birds and monkeys.

The fathers laugh at me as I lay out my plan and challenge “The Big Five.” The truth is that the honeymoon has been waning for a while now, especially at the dinner table. They know how (overly) sensitive I am about blood and dead animals (what they call meat), yet they persist in discussing all manners of meat preparation and consumption at the dinner table just like my Dad and brothers did when I was growing up.

I have dabbled in vegetarianism since I was a young girl and my Dad first asked me if I liked to eat dead chickens while I was eating my mom’s casserole. I said “no.” He explained that I actually was eating a dead chicken, and he and my brothers laughed. I couldn’t understand why we couldn’t just wait until the chicken died naturally on its own. Then my Dad asked if I really wanted to eat not only a dead but also a diseased chicken. Ew. My brothers called fish sticks “fish dicks” and my mom’s beef stroganoff was “beef strokin’ off.” So between these conversations and my love of animals I have lost my appetite for meat.

And here with these strong Africans for whom meat is equal to survival I am again the source of humor at the dinner table. Fathers Mgeni and Charles talk about fertilized chicken eggs, the way all the different animals (including monkey) taste and even describe the tug of war between some Muslims and Christians with a cow down the road. We saw a dead cat in the road two days ago and I got sick. Seriously I have no business telling anyone here anything about animals.

When I say I can’t even stomach eating kuku, Father Charles tries to use logic with me. “Then why did God make the chicken?” he asks.  I don’t know, dude! YOU are the priest, not me! “To feed the chui? To give us eggs? To wake me up in the morning?”

I realize that I seem terribly weak and delicate, so I said I was going to try and eat a fish. That very day I was walking up the road and saw the fisherman delivering the fish to us, its eyes bulging at me, its mouth frozen in an eternal pout. I couldn’t do it.

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The night after the “Big Five Big Fight” Sister Charlotte came to live here with me at the rectory. She teaches French and splits her time between the university here and the one about five hours away in Mwanza. She is from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is the exact same age as I am. While Laura and I spent our teenage years dancing at Disneyland and riding our bikes along the beach in nothing but our bikinis, young Charlotte decided to become a nun after witnessing widespread rape, murder, corruption and torture in her country. Even now, the citizens of The DRC face danger and pre-mature death, and its majestic wild animals are exploited as “bushmeat.” Sister Charlotte’s life experiences do not allow her the luxury of my white- girl squeamishness. At the dinner table the night of her arrival the fathers explain that I don’t eat meat. She asks me why as she eats a mouthful of tiny fish. I tell her that I struggle eating something with a face. In French she tells me to “just rip the head off and you won’t have to see the face.” They all laugh. Et tu, Charlotte?

Not long after that we watch a lizard (mjusi) stalk a moth, Spiderman-like on the ceiling above the dinner table. Even I marvel at the stealth and skill of the hunt. I know the lizard must eat the moth in order to survive. But I am not a lizard. This is as close to an African kill as I want to get.

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After dinner I sit outside to watch the moonrise. Monsignor comes to join me as the birds flitter and fly about, finishing their last tasks before darkness ends their work. You cannot imagine all the different types of birds here—yellow-breasted whatchamacallits, massive pink pelican-looking flibbertyjibbits, speckled crows. They are not shy, and swoop back and forth just a few feet in front of us. I could almost reach out and touch one.

“There are so many beautiful birds here.” I marvel.

Ndege wengi wazuri.

 

“It is true,” says Monsignor. “Do you know why?’ he asks. I shake my head.

“Because we do not eat birds here.” And it is true. He laughs a little and comforts me, reaching over and patting my hand as the full moon rises up out of the shimmering depths of Lake Victoria, the stars spreading out in benevolent dominion over all the creatures of this world.

In A Small Library In The Middle of Africa On My Daughter’s Twentieth Birthday

“This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows’ own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.”

Over twenty years have passed since I left East Africa. Despite experiencing my life-long dream to work here, I was called by an even more powerful siren’s song. Anyone (and thanks to my grandma, that means practically everyone in my family) who has read my journals from that period of my life can verify that I heard a calling more powerful than any I had heard before: My daughters were screaming to be born. I left the Comoros Islands, abandoning the fragrance of ylang-ylang and the melodic words of Bantu, Arabic and French to follow something even sweeter. For all the words in all the languages I have ever heard, a single word—a name—trumps all others and to this day reigns supremely above all others. If I had to choose one word to hear for the rest of my life, it would be the one that took me away from here all those years ago: “Mommy.”

I am a lover of words, and luckily I do not have to choose only one word in one language; however, there are two words I could go the rest of my life without hearing:  shikamo and mzungu. Although meant as a greeting of respect, the word shikomo literally means, “I kiss your feet.” its etymology linked directly to Arabic and the slave trade in East Africa. While most of the people who walk up and down the main hill leading into town greet one another with a “habari” or a “jambo,” I am invariably greeted with “shikomo.” Seriously? I don’t want anyone here kissing my feet—can’t we just have a cup of tea together? I’m never quite sure what I’ve done to garner this level of reverence and respect: it is often used for those who are older or in a higher position of status than the speaker, but many of those who greet me this way are much older than I am. Do they say this to me because I am mzungu? Is the color of my skin really enough to grant me this elevated status? Two days ago, just when I had given up hope I was greeted by a silhouette of a man coming up the hill, the sun directly in my eyes. I was overjoyed when he called out a friendly and informal “Mambo” to me. Thinking that I had finally established myself as an accepted member of this community I smiled…until I came face to face with my interlocutor and realized that the explanation was much simpler than that: The man was blind.

The perception of mzungu (which in case you’ve never been to this part of the world means “white person, whitey, cracker”) offers ample evidence of the white legacy here, and let me tell you (from The Captain Obvious Files), it’s not one to be proud of. From the domestic physical and emotional abuse of colonialism to the unintended, benevolent damage of a very specific type of condescending, public, temporary, I-got-more-than-I -gave altruism (which Ocham describes so powerfully in his poetry: “Philanthropists whose pity is healing, costly and binding like Uncle Tom’s chains” [you can see he is even more dramatic with his words than I am with mine!]), our history here deservedly elicits the responses I get. When most people see me here they are trying to figure out which one of the basic white groups I belong to:  the missionary, the volunteer or the post-colonial, neo-cultural Imperialist. I am none of these. I am here on an exchange fellowship. I am here to learn about language and how bilingualism works here in Tanzania, and I am here to share my knowledge in the area of TESL with my colleagues. But still the children ask me to give them money or candy. Strangers in town ask me for money or await my religious pronouncements. Only after three weeks of being on campus every single day and working alongside the very accomplished faculty here have they finally stopped looking at me skeptically. But they still call me mzungu. I guess that’s only “fair” (get it?)—I am the only whitey on campus.

But it is difficult when you are called by a name that only describes you superficially, a name that suggests you don’t belong (feel free to draw parallels), so I was very happy when the librarians here let me help them process and catalogue an impressive shipment of books from an organization called “Books For Africa, USA.” For over a week we unpacked dozens of boxes filled with some of the most beautiful books sent from universities all across The United States, and for that whole week no one in that library offered to kiss my white feet.

The faculty and staff, especially the librarians, were thrilled with the dozens of cartons of books, and I was proud that they were given by an American organization. “See” I told Ocham, wanting desperately to show that we are more than a mob of bellicose saber-rattlers. “Americans don’t just drop bombs, we also drop books. ”

And he laughs, and we are all pretty happy: the librarians, Ocham and I all love books, and we share a love of words. As we unpacked the librarians asked me to explain some of the words they came across:

“Madame, what is the meaning of ‘I love you to pieces’?”

and then

“Professor, what do ‘symposium’ and  ‘queer’ and  ‘stoic’ mean?

And finally the word that stumps me:

“Sister, what is the meaning of ‘post-modernism’?”

Hell if I know: I’ve been trying to figure out that one for years. It’s like trying to explain surrealism. But I do my best to define it– the librarians looked at me with the righteous confoundation the term deserves, and I explained that there are entire courses offered at American universities attempting to define that word. More righteous confoundation.

In the midst of all these boxes and pages and books, something that transcends words happened during those days in the library. These books come from some of America’s best universities and from some I’ve never heard of, from the most liberal colleges to some of our greatest military academies. We processed books on literature from around the world; on American, European and Canadian business practices (which are a welcome addition to the other business books here like “Gangster Capitalism”); on philosophy; technology; mathematics; world history and politics. I am impressed with the condition, the quality and the relevance of the donated books, especially noticing that some of these books are the same ones my daughters use at their university. Every possible perspective and source of information was found in those boxes (with the delightful exclusion of science textbooks from Oral Roberts University).

As we categorized the books, I answered questions about the concepts about my country that were revealed in the book titles: we tend to mainstream students with “special needs;” we had something called “The Harlem Renaissance;” we simultaneously promote and criticize capitalism; we will send you books that contradict each other and trust that you can make up your own minds.

“So, you really do have freedom of speech, don’t you?’ the head librarian asks.

Yes. Yes we do.

The librarians and I are wordsmiths, so we struggle when the time comes to run the numbers, to add up the books in each category, to reconcile the numbers between the invoices and on our shelves. I have learned a lot about library science and processing books. I have also come to respect my colleagues here who coordinated and paid for the transport of this shipment as well as the organization that sent these books: In one fell swoop “Books For Africa, USA” has quadrupled the size of the St. Augustine University Library in Bukoba.

That is how I spent my daytime hours on January 18, 2013. That night, the night of my daughter Victoria’s birthday I saw my youngest daughter’s sweet face on my computer, and she asked me in a hushed voice, very close to tears “Mommy, please tell me about the work you are doing, so I know it is worth us being so far apart.” So I tried. And despite the sadness I felt at being separated from my daughter on her birthday, as I walked the slight incline from the library towards home that day I smiled. Out of the corner of my ears I could hear that the librarians were talking about me, and instead of calling me mzungu they called me something else. They called me marekani: The American.

Victoria, I hope that is worth us being apart.

 

A Perfect Marriage: My Honeymoon At The Rectory

“This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows’ own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.”

 

It took my ex-husband seven years to ask me to live with him. It took the last man I lived with six years. It took the priests of St. Augustine exactly one week. I wish I could say that my track record is improving, but the truth is that Tanzanian men do not waste time.

I have a very clear arrangement with the men with whom I am now cohabitating: this is temporary, I must respect their personal space, and they have clarified to me (and the entire world) that they have absolutely no intentions of ever marrying me. To be fair, I also had this arrangement with the last man I lived with, but this time I hold no illusions.

For the first week in Bukoba I had been living all alone in a house reserved for the nuns and female lecturers like me. The nuns are, as my neighbor told me, “always coming and going.” In fact they spend only two weeks a month here as their responsibilities call them to other parts of the country. The water and electricity were unreliable, and I was spending all of my free time at the rectory anyway. I practically had a toothbrush there.

I felt at home with these priests who do not strangle me with the narrow noose of the Irish Catholicism of my ancestors. We ate all of our meals together, the Monsignor drove me to and from work everyday, and we all lingered after dinner amicably discussing the most controversial subjects at most dinner tables: politics, philosophy and religion. Imagine having dinner and lively discussions every night with four men who have PhDs and absolutely no untoward intentions. I must add that these men are, and I’m told there is a distinction, African Catholics.  This is a guilt-free zone. These are men of the world and tell the most vivid stories about their travels, about riding around Rome on Vespas when they were young men, about their lives in their tribal villages and boarding schools. Between the four of them they have been practically everywhere and do not cloister themselves like Benedictines. They are humanitarians, teachers and philosophers. Since the nuns aren’t here I have their undivided attention. What’s more they even laugh at my jokes! (“How did the philosophical sweet potato describe his existence? I yam what I yam.”) What more could a gal ask for?

So it was with great relief and joy when Father Mgeni, the Director of the University, asked if I would feel more comfortable moving to the rectory compound. He asked if I would be amenable to the idea of occupying (along with the sisters when they come) Father Charles’ house. Father Charles had agreed to move into Father Mgeni’s house, Monsignor Deogratius and Father Joseph, the elder statesmen, would not be moved or (hopefully) inconvenienced. I, of course, agreed, tears of joy rolling down my cheek as if he’d just proposed.  ‘Great” he said. “Pack your things, and I will pick you up at 6:00.” I got home from work that day at 4:15. I was packed and ready to move out by 4:30.

I feel a little guilty (so much for the guilt-free zone!) because I am doing something with these men that I haven’t done historically with the men in my life: I listen to them. When Father Charles tells me not to touch frogs or lizards because they might be poisonous I heed his warning.  If one of the fathers suggests that I might need a sweater I don’t give him an attitude. I listen to their suggestions about books I should read.  I do not give them any of what my Dad calls “push back.” I do not act, as one or two men in my past may have called me, “impossible.” And I do not drive these men (as I have almost all others who get this close to me) to such perturbation that they erupt into a flurry of profanity that would make Charles Bukowski blush. At least not yet.

Don’t get me wrong: I have not taken a vow of blind obedience like a nun. It’s just that I was so lonely and homesick in that large, lonely convent. I will forever be indebted to these men, especially Father Charles who was displaced from his two-bedroom bachelor pad to give me a beautiful room of my own. And the truth is I would be a little lost without them right now.

So here I am in the honeymoon period. My bags were carried across the threshold into my first real home in Bukoba. It is perfect.

The men will not let me lift a finger. When I was hanging up my clothes outside to dry, one of the fathers shook his head. Someone cleans my house two days a week, and an excellent cook named Irene prepares breakfast, lunch and dinner. The fathers said they just want me to focus on work (“Oh, you are so smart! You have so many talents! What an excellent idea!). Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Last night after a heated discussion about polygamy in Africa (and which, unfortunately, prompted Monsignor to leave the table), I couldn’t help but defend polyandry, especially considering my current domestic arrangement. I have come to realize that I am (as one or two men from my past may have called me) a “handful,” and I now have a newfound compassion for the men in my life back home who have supported and loved me. I am too much for one man. I might even be too much for four, but so far they are doing a great job. Here they are:

Monsignor Deogratius was the first one to invite me to the rectory. After my first lonely night at the empty convent I was walking down the hill and inadvertently ran into a very kind and gentle older man who asked me to join him and the fathers for dinner. Of course I accepted, and the poor man has been stuck with me ever since.  I gradually learned that he was one of the founders of St. Augustine University, and not just a “father” but a Monsignor. He also has a PhD in Philosophy and a very quiet disposition. It took me awhile to figure out who he reminds me of. He often sits quietly, sometimes even with his eyes closed, while the rest of us are engaged in lively conversation. Then he will interject a one or two sentence comment that hits the mark so perfectly it often silences us. The other night as he opened his eyes and said something like “…only the one wearing the shoe knows where it pinches” I realized who he reminds me of: He is my Yoda. He is very wise and thoughtful. We talk about Viktor Frankl, Nietzsche, Kant, St. Thomas; however, he is a stickler for punctuality, so I have my work cut out for me because he is the one who drives me to work every morning. The force is very strong in him. He is the man who tries to keep me in line.

Father Mgeni is the Director if St. Augustine University, and he looks like the hot guy in the Old Spice commercials. He is the one who officially asked me to move in to the rectory, and he is a real visionary in terms of African higher education. But at the dinner table he sadistically enjoys grossing me out by describing all the different types of animals and insects he has eaten. He has a PhD in Education, and is a wonderful leader and administrator who clearly understands the value of education. After dinner at night, he opens the door of the dining room that leads to the outside, and says, “Ladies first…there might be lions out there.” He makes me laugh at myself, which is all I’ve ever really asked for in a man. He is the man who, like so many before him, tries to get me to toughen up.

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(Father Charles on the left and Father Mgeni on the right)

Father Charles is the bursar, which means he controls the money. He also embodies all that a priest should be and has made a vow of poverty, which is a perfect combination: the bills all get paid and there is no chance of him squandering money on sports cars, strippers or bimbos. He has a Magic Johnson baby face and the heart of a medieval knight. At first I nicknamed him “Charles in Charge” because he is in charge of the money, but now I call him “The Scientist” because he is working on his PhD in Material Chemistry (which he’s still trying to explain to me). He knows so many facts and gives such ornate descriptions of animals and natural history. As I mentioned he is the one who moved out of his awesome bachelor pad for me; he also offers to wait for me to drive me to or from work if I am running too late for Monsignor (which may or may not have happened once or twice). Sometimes he joins in with Father Mgeni to tease me, but mostly he is attentive to my every need. Sometimes it’s as if he can read my mind, and the word “thoughtful” does not even begin to describe him (which is all I’ve ever really asked for in a man): if I want more potatoes at dinner he passes them to me before I have to ask; just when I need stamps for letters he asks if I need anything from downtown; he removes a dead bird from my porch because he knows if will make me sad. He is the man who pays the bills and dotes on me.

Father Joseph is the most unique character, and possibly the most well educated man, I have ever met in my life. There is no way I can completely describe him. He looks like Sidney Poitier with aquatic blue eyes that pierce to your very heart. I told him last night that he is like two men in one, which is all I’ve ever really asked for in a man. He is a man of the western world with his perfect British accent, impeccable appearance and extensive education (a PhD in Theology from The Gregorian University in Rome, post-doctoral studies in Social Anthropology from Oxford University, fluency in at least six languages). But he is first and foremost an African man with his deep tribal roots, and understanding of ancient beliefs and customs. When he speaks his long fingers point and wave and wag like an Italian’s, but I also have no doubt that he could also go all Shaka Zulu with those hands. He loves California, and co-founded The University of San Francisco’s African Studies Department. He makes me laugh so hard sometimes that my stomach hurts, and he also holds my hand like a grandfather when I feel homesick. We get in a lot of trouble together with Monsignor, and are already conspiring to sneak out one Saturday night to spy on the students at the local nightclub. Father Joseph is my connection to home and my partner in crime here in Bukoba.

As I said, between the four of them I think my bases are finally covered. They are (almost) everything I have looked for in a man—someone who will keep me on the straight and narrow but will also let loose and make me laugh. Someone who will dote on me and read my mind. Someone who will both treat me like a princess and respect me as an equal, acknowledging that I am an independent woman, Someone to challenge me intellectually and keep me safe. And this is all I’ve ever really asked for in a man.

I now publicly apologize to the men in my life whom I’ve expected to do all of this single-handedly.

When I came here I knew that I would be working alongside some very religious people, but I didn’t really know what to expect. The beautiful thing about that though is that I came here with an open mind towards Catholicism despite my legitimate objections to some of its disgraceful legacies. The night before I left for Tanzania I had a portentous dream: In this dream my friend Monica’s dad, Gerry, came to me and asked me to keep my heart open to the Catholic Church. Gerry, a devout Catholic, died over ten years ago. Since I’m a believer of dreams and because I loved that man very much I followed the message of that dream.

Gerry’s daughter and I have been friends since kindergarten, so he knew me very well and throughout most of my life. He was a very good man. My best memory of him is when one day, in the midst of my divorce and intense heartbreak, Gerry showed up unannounced at my front door. I was astonished. He had hiked over 5 miles to come and see me. He knew that I had been spending most of my days crying and in deep anguish trying to understand what had gone wrong. Gerry, who was a marriage counselor at his church, tried to help me learn from my pain. I cried on his shoulders, telling him that I was giving up on men. I remember being very surprised at Gerry’s gentle suggestion that I already had given up on men a long time ago. “Look around you! You take care of everything by yourself—your house, your children, the bills. You tell the world everyday that you don’t need a man!” His words hurt, but they were true. “Men need to feel needed and appreciated by a woman, that’s just the truth sweetheart.” I thought that was a load of malarkey, but now that I have a trail of failed romantic relationships behind me and after my experiences at the rectory I am reconsidering Gerry’s masculine perspective. Here in Tanzania I have learned that although I am a strong, competent, independent woman it is okay, in fact it may be in my best interest, to need men. So to the men whom I love so much I apologize for all of the pushback. I’m sorry I do not always pay attention to what you are trying to tell me. It’s been a long, painful road, but I’ve come to realize how much I need men. I have come to realize that my life is better when I listen to the men who are in my life… and in my dreams.

Let Me Count The Ways: The 5 Senses in Bukoba

“This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows’ own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.”

 

 

Before I came to Bukoba I did not meet a single Tanzanian who had been to this city on the western shores of Lake Victoria, near the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. When I asked Tanzanians about this place, the response was universal: “I hope you like bananas.”

So I had limited information, except what I had seen on the Internet. As my small plane prepared for landing on the dirt runway, I saw layers of green bordering the expanse of Lake Victoria (which incidentally lives up to its majestic reputation). I saw a nun and my colleague waiting for me just outside the tiny terminal. My new colleague, Professor Ocham Collins Olanda is the man responsible for my fellowship. He has navigated  byzantine  layers of paperwork and cleared the way for me to get here safely. As we walk along the misty runway, I can’t help but think: “Ocham, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”

And so far I am right. Professor Ocham is my perfect counterpart in so many ways, and I will discuss the work we are doing here together in blogs to come. I think this is also the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the town of Bukoba. The information I received from cyberspace did not do this place justice, so today I just want to share with you the beauty of this remote town as I have experienced it this past week.

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Bukoba looks like  an evergreen forest wrapped in a tropical jungle, like a thousand shades of emerald dripping with breadfruit, mango, papaya and banana. It looks like hilly dirt roads that turn into red clay when it rains, with people moving in all directions carrying firewood, charcoal, the day’s harvest and water balanced impossibly and perfectly on their heads. It looks like men walking hand in hand as Lake Victoria winks through the thatched roof eyelids along the shore. Bukoba town looks like the Wild West with its dusty roads, wooden storefronts and cars winding through the streets like outlaws. It looks like children sleeping under the market stalls covered with bananas.  It looks like pale lizards, monkeys, frogs, goats, chickens and birds of extraordinary shapes and colors. From the hilltops, Bukoba looks like Eden.

Bukoba smells like charcoal, pine trees, the sweat of hard work, passion flowers, fresh air and bananas.

Bukoba tastes like rice and beans and eggs with curry and spinach and cassava. It tastes like giant bananas  that remind you of potatoes and bananas that are small and sweet. It tastes like warm tea with sugar and Masala spices. Bukoba tastes like papaya and cinnamon. It tastes like Coca-Cola made with sugar instead of corn syrup. It tastes like Kigali– a mixture of flour and water served with sauce and vegetables. Bukoba tastes like traditional African cooking, prepared over a fire on the ground using the gifts of the earth, the trees and the lake.

Bukoba sounds like baboons outside your window and like the mating calls of feathery flight. It sounds like the songs of a thousand people rejoicing on a Sunday morning from the Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican and Catholic churches, their music floating up to the heavens like helium balloons. It sounds like the call to prayer on a Friday afternoon, and it sounds like the horn of the ship called “Victoria” as she returns from Mwanza every morning at 6:00 a.m. Bukoba sounds like the silence of  bananas. It sounds like languages that worship the rhythm of staccato. It sounds like the wind through the trees and the grass. Bukoba sounds like life.

Bukoba feels like cool rains and warm sunlight. It feels like mud between your toes and mango nectar running down your fingers. Bukoba feels like warm hands holding yours, like women embracing you every time they meet or leave you. Bukoba feels like the soft flesh of banana in your mouth. Bukoba feels very ancient–a place where ghosts still live peacefully among us. Bukoba feels simultaneously very close to and very far away from home.

The Cavemen of My Dreams: Last Days in Dar

“This website is not an official U.S. Department of State website. The views and information presented are the English Language Fellows’ own and do not represent the English Language Fellow Program or the U.S. Department of State.”

Fossil evidence of hominids and early man dating back two million years ago was discovered here in Tanzania, making it the earliest known place where humans lived! Anyone who knows me knows that I have a certain, how can I say it,  “fascination” with our cavemen ancestors, so this partially explains my attraction to this part of the world. On my last free day in Dar Es Salaam I decided to visit the National Museum of Tanzania to see some of these fossils. Although the throng of American tourists coming out of the museum seemed underwhelmed and complained that the museum lacked air conditioning, I was not disappointed. There are cavemen bones in there! How could I be?

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But it wasn’t just the cavemen exhibition that intrigued me. There are also preserved sea creatures of all types. And ancient drawings and sculptures, including a carving of a half-man/ half-octopus.

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Of course there was more. Old photos covered the walls chronicling the history of Tanzania through the portraits of tribal leaders, German and British colonialists (including one of a very fat white man being carried on a large hammock by 20 Africans), and the presidents of Tanzania. The first President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere (nicknamed ‘the teacher’) is represented in pictures throughout various stages of his life (which are much better than the one of him on wikepedia which shows him sporting, curiously, a Hitler mustache– he may have been a socialist, but the author of that wikepedia page has chosen perhaps the least flattering photograph of Nyerere I have ever seen–not cool).

Nyerere is a beloved man here, despite his faults. He helped two countries unite (Zanzibar and Tanganyika), and he ushered Tanzania into an era of Independence in the 1960s– something to revere for sure.

Speaking of independence I miss mine. Back at home I drive myself everywhere, and don’t really worry about being out at night, but there are different requirements and expectations here. I don’t have a car, and I don’t feel comfortable being out at night alone. During the daytime I feel pretty safe; however, the main caveat (I have been told repeatedly by other women) is not to carry a purse. One Tanzanian woman showed me strap-shaped scars across both of her forearms where her bags had been ripped off on the streets of Dar Es Salaam. “ I tell you—that was a bad time of it.”  She understates.

By the time the sun starts going down here I can start to feel the energy of the city change, and I think it is like this in many parts of the world. People start drinking. And alcohol makes people violent and angry. This is the main reason I do not like to drink alcohol—I associate it (and statistics back this up) with violence. So when the streets start to fill with crowds of men with beer bottles, and the bars and restaurants start serving drinks I get outta Dodge (or Dar, depending where I am) and go lock myself in my room.

I think we often fool ourselves about safety back at home in the States. My home has been broken into.  I know too many women who have been raped. In high school a drunk driver hit my best friend and me, and a drunk driver killed my brother-in-law. My Dad just had his wallet and cell phone stolen– from a gated community. I think we also fool ourselves about poverty, that we don’t have it in America like I see here in Africa. I haven’t seen anything here in terms of poverty that I haven’t seen back at home.

One of the most prominent differences, for me, between Dar Es Salaam and American big cities is not that the safety concerns or the gaps between rich and poor are necessarily greater, they are just more obvious here: a family lives in a lean-to next to a Middle Eastern palace, a woman dressed in silk sits next to a beggar woman, citizens of the city will warn you about crime, and offer safety tips. At home we tend to segregate ourselves based on socio-economic class, even in public. We tend to pretend like we are safer than we are, and we don’t always warn strangers of the dangers they might face where we live.

Here poverty and danger are in your face; at home they’re hidden under a veil of delusion.

US EMBASSY, DAR ES SALAAM

Rebecca picked me up the day before I left for Bukoba to take me to the US Embassy for some final preparations. This is when the reality of my fellowship truly hit me. For the next 10 months I will be a representative of the United States Embassy in Dar Es Salaam. I still cannot believe it.

The embassy here is impressive and relatively new. Rebecca reminds me that this is because the old one had been “blown up ”—she really does like to sugarcoat things.

This Phoenix of a compound is inspiring. If only America were as utopian as it seems in these buildings…

portraits of President Obama, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton smile benevolently

workers of (seemingly) all races and creeds are smiling, busy at their posts

a library opens its doors to anyone who wants to enjoy some of the best American writing and popular culture: the poetry of Langston Hughes; the stories of Hemingway and Ellison; the music of EllaFitzgerald, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen and Branford Marsalis; a video library of some of the greatest movies ever made.

free speech reigns supremely here where colleagues do not seem to filter their words or thoughts, yet a quintessential cheerfulness pervades

And for a few short hours I am home.

Serendipity seems to be the theme of my fellowship (more to come on that). The first example was my meeting with Roberto II, the deputy Public Affairs Officer here, whose office oversees my fellowship. As soon as I met him I knew: Boricua. He is Puerto Rican. For those of you who know me, you know that Puerto Rico has become near and dear to my heart. To see the two paintings of Old San Juan alongside one of San Francisco made me feel even more at home. Like me, Roberto has family in both Puerto Rico and California. So there we stood, two representatives of The United States of America speaking Spanish in a Swahili-speaking country, taking about the beautiful “territory” of Puerto Rico whose ignored status in the US , like a neglected stepchild, still baffles me. Ay, mi tierra!

That night I ate dinner early and packed for my new home in Bukoba. I said a reluctant good-bye to Dar Es Salaam as I looked forward to discovering the place that will be my home for the rest of my time in Tanzania. Westward-ho! Bukoba, here I come.

Love Is The Drug For Me: Christmas In The Islamic World

I was not looking forward to Christmas this year. It is one of my favorite holidays, but because of my fellowship in Tanzania I spent it away from my family. I especially missed my daughters. But I am often amazed at how and where the Christmas spirit strikes me, and this year was no exception.
Maybe it was because Christmas started a full day earlier in the Islamic world than in the western world that the first wishes I received for a Merry Christmas came from Muslims: my former student, Reza, who fled Iran and crossed Afghanistan on foot to get to America sent an e-mail wishing me a Merry Christmas. He is now a pharmacist. He has repeatedly told me that if I need anything while I am here he will get it for me, and I truly believe he would cross lion-infested plains to bring me an aspirin. Two other former students, one from Saudi Arabia and the other from The United Arab Emirates, sent me smiley-emoticon-filled greetings on facebook. So my Christmas Spirit of 2012 was delivered, –cyber gold, frankincense, and myrrh –by three Muslim men.
The warm wishes continued throughout the day. The people I passed on the roads called out “Christmas njema” and the downstairs neighbor brought me a cactus wrapped in silver bows and told me that Santa had found me all the way here in Tanzania.
I cannot say I spent Christmas alone: the people here at my apartment complex were very warm and kind, and with the power of technology I was able to have a virtual Christmas with my precious family. But for all intents and purposes I was alone on Christmas for the first time in my life. The kindness and care the Muslims in my life showed me on this holiest of nights (even for someone of questionable faith like me) breathed life into my withering Christmas enthusiasm.
On Christmas Eve I walked down to the shore of Coco Beach. The Christmas Eve beach stroll is a tradition I have with my brother and Dad. Along this path I usually pass a group of mothers with their babies and children, all living under a baobob tree. Sometimes they respond to my greetings with a salama or an nzuri. Sometimes they stick out their tongues at me. On Christmas Eve one of the mothers stood up as I passed and greeted me with a handshake. She leaned in close to whisper, her child sleeping and strapped to her back. The only words I heard and understood were mtoto… mgonjwa: “child…sick.” I gave a sympathetic gesture, and kept walking. Until the Christmas Spirit of 2012 stopped me in my tracks. If a man who was raised Islamic would be willing to get me medicine half a world away, I should be willing to do the same for a woman standing right in front of me on Christmas Eve. She had a sick child. I had money and directions to the pharmacy– here we can completely bypass the doctor, go directly to the pharmacist, explain symptoms and be given medication,–so this is what we did.
Maybe the medicine—a purple elixir I recognize from childhood– worked; maybe it didn’t. After I paid for it, the mother seemed relieved, and we embraced each other. She doesn’t stick her tongue out at me anymore when I pass. I do not share this story to present myself as some benevolent angel, but to share that I was inspired to do this by the kindness I had been given that day, by the knowledge that my student Reza would have done the same for me without even hesitating, that acts of kindness are to be reciprocated. These little gestures matter. These little gestures are what the message of Christmas is supposed to be about. Unfortunately these small gestures of kindness between Christian and Muslim are obliterated and obfuscated by the greater gestures of violence between our two cultures. The violence and cruelty between us is more powerful than the kindness and mutual gestures we can and often do extend to one another.
So we innoculate ourselves with celebrations like this night with the panaceas of hope, love and good will toward men.  This is what many of us who celebrate Christmas believe in, at least for one night a year: we collectively sing some of the loveliest words in the English language, and for a few hours we actually seem to believe them:
“joy to the world”
“a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices”
“all is calm; all is bright”
“the hopes and fears of all the years are met with thee tonight”
“above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by”
“war is over”
And as I said good-bye to the mother and her baby, I savor this one fleeting moment where the message of Christmas lives. Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a religious woman, but I do believe in the spirit of Christmas. I do believe in the message of Jesus as I interpret it: love is the answer. Period. (This explains why I did so poorly in math!) God is beyond my comprehension, but love is not.
My student Reza says that although he was raised Muslim, he believes that religion is “the opiate of society.” I have heard others say that religion in general is a crutch, a mind-numbing method of control, a mechanism to escape from the pain of reality– just like a drug. And we need these escapes. Even my most religiously cynical friends embrace Christmas; during these brief moments of escape from reality we truly believe in Peace on Earth, joy and Santa. Because if we didn’t, the truth would be unbearable.
Not long after I left the mother and her baby, two churches in Nigeria were attacked by “Boko Haram”—a group that attacks Christians for being Christian and Muslims for not being Islamic enough. The body count is still rising. In New York a gunman ambushed heroic firefighters, killing at least two. There was no cease-fire on the streets of Chicago: seventeen youths were murdered on Christmas Eve there. A woman was gang raped and murdered in India. Acts of pettiness between family members abound. Suicide rates in the United States spike during the holidays, perhaps because some no longer have access to the “opiate” of hope that Christmas brings. If I couldn’t get my fix during the holidays I might not be able to bear the pain either.
If Christmas 2012 was welcomed in by Muslim men for me, it was ushered beautifully out by two Jewish women: my new friend here, Rachel, organized a dinner for her ex-pat goyem colleagues; and my friend back home, Yael blasted me and my daughters with the most heart-felt on-line wishes for a Merry Christmas as she celebrates Hannukah. My Christmas Spirit always finds me, probably because I am one of the lucky ones, and I have so many lovely messengers from different faiths to bring it to me.  It still finds me when I am in a far-away land surrounded by strangers, here in Dar Es Salaam where Arabic, Indian and Shirazi merchants, African chiefs, slave traders, missionaries and colonists have competed for control in some of the cruelest ways imaginable. It exists in the small gestures of kindness we offer one another, and in our altered state of belief  that one day there will be peace on Earth. I missed my family profoundly this year at Christmas, my daughters especially. I hope I have showered them with enough hope and joy to immunize them against the diseases of hatred so that they too will find the Christmas Spirit wherever and whenever it whispers to them.