A Christmas Eve Wakening

Red-Fire-Truck-Metal-Vintage-Red-Rustic-Fire

My neck cracked in contempt as I impatiently shifted my body weight on the couch. A long but elegant piece of perfectly proportioned furniture, covered in a reluctantly brownish-grey upholstery that poorly hid the fact that it was at one time a delicate cream color, it should have been long enough for a human body. That is except for the unfortunate ninety-degree curve in the center of it that crippled the otherwise rigid structure. While this frame found similarity in the placement of an elbow in the region of a human arm, it was by no means as effective in its day to day functionality. Visibly one of its best features, as agreed upon by all in the household, the elbow curve was also an unfortunate reminder of its intended use: sitting, exactly what I had not been doing on it all night. Though I must admit it had foiled my efforts of sleep as much as I had frustrated its plans to be a respectable piece of day-time lounge furniture. However, when your options are to share a bed with the fussy older guest from Dar Es Salaam or take the couch, and you are no longer of an age when it is acceptable to make public proclamations about body odor, however rightfully deserved, you accept the couch with grudging gratitude. 

I pulled the too short purple plaid Maasai blanket over my head in anticipation of the wake up call that was sure to come in just a few minutes in the horrid form of three children bursting into the room at 6:30 AM. (A task not so challenging when the room is uninhibited by a door of any kind.) This entrance saluted no purpose except that children are for some devilish reason made to glean extraneous energy from the very same things that the rest of us find draining: sweets, promise of actual things to do, and surprises. All of which there are plenty of in the days leading up to Christmas. And rather more immediately, there was a mosquito I was sure would fly into my auditory cavity if I did not take immediate precaution. 

The sound of the night guard scraping the dusty ground with a bamboo rake just on the other side of the slat windows had also worried my ears and I knew from experience, now that I had received the sound, it would not depart from my consciousness easily. Burrowing my hand up close to my face I compromised my makeshift blanket fortress, freeing my nose and mouth in order to take in fresher air, only slightly seasoned with the daintily distilled smell of Frankie, the Jack-Russell Terrier(ish) terror, emanating from the cantankerous couch. Frankie being the beast who held court on the couch until I unceremoniously cast him off of his citadel perch and out of his slumber last night. I, asserting an arrogant claim to the tattered battlement on no better grounds than assumption of human priority and sheer size, cast out the furry fallen Lord from his manor. As I hungrily took in the compromised but fresher morning air, I resignedly hoped the mosquito and the children would not discern the breach in my woolen security so perilously close to my nostrils- therefore allowing me to eke out a few more moments of unsettled unity with the cushions. 

Yet if I were to get up. I could make the coffee. My host told me a horrific story of her father, the Good Reverend, who once got up at four AM every morning for three months while she and her husband were staying with him. He had concluded that the path of least resistance regarding “the coffee issue” was to simply be the earliest to rise and therefore make the coffee to his apparently rather specific standards. This story left me puzzled each time I recalled it, as I was sure that his issue was the apparent overwhelming strength of the coffee, a rather confusing (and seeming) conspiracy having consumed more than should be humanly permissible of the rather vulgar bean water that sputtered out of the misused coffee maker each morning in this harried household. (To which my hostess still added milk, always with the same explanation that her husband made it too strong.) While I had no such qualms about avoiding a Coffee Confrontation with my poorly palated hostess like the Good Preacher feared, the issue of the bean water persisted. 

The mosquito, having given up on the assault of my face orifices, discovered the shamelessly bare skin of the feet I was unable to cover at the same time as my face. It made quick and stealthy work of the flesh down there which I did not notice until I was left with the angry red aftermath. 

In the dregs of my memory of the evening before I recalled that those of us who remained beyond the witching hour, partaking of those things befitting witches and demons, mainly wrapping presents and drinking warmed cider of course, we had also left the dining room in dreadful disaster. I could rise now to clear away the lasting remembrances of the night now gone, or become more firmly planted in my palisade of  cushions knowing that all there was awaiting me beyond the beckon of an elated morning light were chores to accompany the accommodating yet altogether belligerent bean water. 

Of course, there was the German Chocolate cake. The other bit of sin we had engaged in. Rising now may also be rewarded with a sneaky chocolatey morning treat. A rather sloppily constructed confection completed with only the one mishap of fusing half of the cake batter to the bottom of the oven. And requiring a chisel to remove the transmogrified sludge that suspiciously resembled the George Washington section of the great Mount Rushmore (had it fallen off of the mountain in some hand-of-God cleansing of the scraped and defiled sacred mountains). The confection was indeed baked, with just enough help from a few too many Aunties giving Talmudic advice on “the best way” and “the secret to” and “if you just add,” to make it a mountingly monstrous affair. Our hostess’s husband, who stood at the helm of this endeavor of confectionary perfection for the simple reason of irritating the irreverent spirits amongst us, concluded the baking by perilously piecing together with icing and deals with divine and devilish figures, two layers of something we were assured was edible… well perhaps not poisonous?

In the end I am not sure if it was in fact the offending mosquito, the quest to redeem the coffee, or the promise of a cheeky course of confiture that finally drew me down from my torpid turret. But I was at final tally defeated by that formidable foe Frankie the Jack-Russell Terrier(ish) beast of wide  renown and repugnant repute. For upon the dining table where we had made merry and laid plans for Christmas cheer was plopped a should-be-white furry bottom next to an overturned mug, a bearded, gray face partially visible amid the center of the precariously plastered together German Chocolate cake! 

He spared barely a blink for me as he opened his mouth for another bite. 

FFFFFRRRRAAAAANNNNKKKIIIIIIEEEEE!!!!!

*This is Dedicated to Mr. Giroir, who first taught me to savor the quiet moments and who was also known to have one or two little dogs on hand at any one time. Your presence still rings in the quiet places in our hearts. 

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One More Story

I have a story I would like to tell. It is about clothes. But before I tell you this story about clothes, there are some things you need to know. 

  1. I have now passed the one year marker of living in rural Tanzania. And my life here is very different from my life in the United States. 
  2. There were several occasions in this year that I was a phone call away from quitting and going home early. Once I was stopped from making the phone call only because my phone was dead after a four day power outage. 
  3. Living in a new place is not the same as visiting a new place. The things that seem exciting as a visitor quickly become old and tired as you learn how much of a struggle they can make your every day life. Like not being fluent in the local language, not having a washing machine, or having to walk down dirt roads many days in tailored pencil skirts to get to work. 
  4. This is now a place I think of as home, not my only home, but I have friends that I care about here, and that care about me. I know how to do laundry here now. I know the best spots for street food. It is a home. 
  5. And I own and sometimes wear local clothing. 

This is the point that is most significant to this story. Let me explain. Every day I try to do God’s work through our human systems of justice. I listen to people, I help connect people to education and training so that change will begin to come from them. I do my best to live in the gaps. I attend churches where the only attire acceptable for women are dresses below the knee, and where God is always “Father God.” I don’t share everything about myself, my upbringing or my social beliefs to my community here. This is because it would be isolating personally for me and because  my story and beliefs would perhaps become an extreme that would not be helpful for taking unified steps forward for justice. 

A few months into being here I had the blessing of being part of a baby’s journey into the world. I stayed with the mother for a few days before she had the baby, went to the hospital with her in the middle of the night, and then helped take care of the baby for a few weeks after the birth. She gave me a piece of cloth which is known here as a “kanga.” It is a beautifully dyed fabric about a yard wide and it was the first piece of anything African I had ever owned. You see I come from a place that recognizes that sometimes when we take things from cultures that are not our own, whether they be material or intangible, without understanding or acknowledging where these pieces of culture come from, we may be abusing or commodifying a history that deserves to stand alone and be recognized through its own telling. 

But then this woman whom I care very much for gave me this beautiful piece of cloth as a gift, because of a bond we now share forever. A bond that I celebrate every time I hold the child I was there to see come into the world for the first time. I had also heard many origin stories about the kanga, some of the stories discuss the kanga as originating from the all white attire slaves were permitted to wear on Zanzibar and the rich colors signifying a freedom from that slavery. Other stories discuss it as arriving with some of the tribes from West Africa. I don’t know that all of the women who wear them know these legends/histories, just that this is the clothing they wear, and always have. I don’t know if these stories are true. I folded up the kanga and left it on my shelf. 

One day I was complaining to my roommate about how annoyed I was at having to wear skirts to the village all the time (this being expected of me). “Then why don’t you just wear your kanga” she asked? I didn’t understand. “Just wear trousers and then when you get to the village wrap your kanga around you. Lots of women do it” she explained. 

So then I had a choice. I could be more comfortable, perhaps more authentically Bernadette by wearing trousers. But then I would also be wearing something on top of the more authentic me that felt very inauthentic. I now think that perhaps I also had a fear of being identified with the women around me who wear such garments. A fear in being associated with Tanzania, in doing things the way Tanzanians do them. A sentiment perhaps as damaging as misusing culture; rejecting it out of hand. 

Then one day I was caught off guard and had to be in the village quickly. Without thinking it through I grabbed the piece of cloth and hopped on a motorbike to the village. As I entered my place of work swathed in the brightly patterned fabric I was met with joyful comments and surprise. I was told things like, “now you are a real African woman,” and “now you are beautiful.” Those comments didn’t really help my comfort levels, but I had no choice but to go with it. Guess what? I survived, and the attention I received was short lived and positive not the confused stares I was expecting.

I continued to use the kanga for things like this, and then I started to use it for things like cooking and cleaning because that is what the other women around me did. It makes a great apron, and keeps the ever present dust off of your nicer clothes. I did not realize my transformation until one day I found myself squatting outside my door washing dishes in a basin with rainwater, chatting with my neighbor, wrapped in my kanga that by this time was a bit faded and ragged with use. What exactly had I transformed into? I’m still working that one out. 

Since then I have amassed a few more kangas and have also had kitenge dresses made for me for various occasions. I have them made in styles that suit me, and the culture I come from, but still they are Tanzania print dresses, made by a Tanzanian seamstress. If it is made in Tanzania and it is bought in Tanzania, it is Tanzanian. Here in this place, I rarely notice these additions to my wardrobe, in fact, they are part of the regular rotation of clothes for every day use. To my neighbors and co workers, I am not doing something of note, just simply living as people do. It is good to feel like a person sometimes, when so often I am instead the foreigner. 

Recently I went to Zambia for a gathering of other young adult missionaries in my program serving in the regions of Africa and Europe; the same folks I had been trained with before leaving for Tanzania. Many of these other young adults are African. The first full day there was a Sunday. Naturally I pulled out my best outfit for church. It wasn’t until I stepped out of my hotel room and into the lobby that I realized I was no longer Benadetta wearing a nice dress for church, rather I was again the white American wearing an African print dress. I have experienced “foreigner” in many ways this year, but never in this particular way. It was an awful feeling. I was sure there were eyes on me. I imagined there were judgements and questions about my insensitivity to culture. Further more, I was in Zambia, not Tanzania. I couldn’t communicate in a local language that would in some ways at least indicate a history with or knowledge of this land. I had none. I was just a white woman in an African dress. And later that night when I slipped out of my room again wrapped in a kanga- my now automatic response to needing to be modest, I realized that not only was I wearing a kanga, but that the way I was wearing it, in this hotel for business people, is not a place for Africans to wear them either.

In Tanzania, the kanga is a cloth worn for work, made to get dirty, to protect the nice things underneath. If you are wealthy, you likely do not go outside of your house wearing one. After heavy use they get cut up and are used as cloth diapers for babies. So when I wore a kanga that first time, I was saying to my community that hard work is for all of us, even me. Choosing a kanga over some other kind of clothing reduced the gap between Tanzania and Bernadette, it was a message that made clear my intention to do the work it takes to welcome change to this community. 

Had I been an African woman who was staying at this hotel, the guests and staff would have assumed I was from a village, I would have been saying a lot about my life. They would not have done anything rude, but perhaps wondered what a woman from a village was doing at a conference in this hotel. As a white woman I was showing that I had no understanding of the appropriate places to wear this piece of clothing. But I was Benadetta who did come from the village, and I hadn’t thought to bring anything else. 

As the gathering continued I found the spaces in which to talk about my many experiences in Tanzania thus far, and got to hear about others’ struggles that in the end were not so different from mine. We shared feelings of isolation and sometimes manipulation because of our identities as foreigners, struggles to live into the absurdities and the margins, the notion of just carrying on no matter what. I got to hear story after story about how “just carrying on” resulted in transformations we had yet to discover about ourselves. 

After this it wasn’t so hard to walk around in the evenings wrapped in a kanga- because that was just the thing I had brought to wear at night. And there were jokes and light observations about how I was “more African” than many of the Africans in the room. Those are still difficult to process. I am not African, I do not pretend to be or to embody that history. I am however changed by Africa. By Tanzania. Through no fault of my own I am learning how to be more distinctly Bernadette because of Tanzania and Tanzanians. A Bernadette who still at her core wears trousers under her kangas. A Bernadette who indeed is American, and says things that only Americans say. A Bernadette who can more than ever, find her footing in the margins, between two hard places, and manage to keep her balance. 

Love.

Living in Tanzania requires a lot of patience. 

The average meeting runs about four hours long, or until the sun goes down. Greetings when you enter a room can take upwards of twenty minutes. Make sure to eat before going to a restaurant since it will be at least two hours till your order arrives- and it will take at least thirty minutes to locate a server when you are ready to pay your bill. Also, bring snacks to church since you’ll be there all day. 

Then there are things I am embarrassed to say I have learned here. I have learned compromise. The need for compromise is in every society, including my homeland of the United States of America. It is embarrassing that it took total removal of things I find familiar and comforting to learn compromise. I should have arrived with this skill. 

When all things familiar have been stripped away, the things you are drawn to are the nuggets of commonality, no matter the casing in which they are set. 

I have learned that compromise is by no means a “loss” but rather progress and sensitivity to a collective humanity. And yes, we need to be reminded of each other’s humanity, our fallibility, and the grace with which we are cultivated. Compromise establishes a slower and gentler orientation to change in which all persons evolve from their initial understanding of an issue. Compromise is not a stagnant one-time agreement, but an establishment of an intention to work until there is a solution. 

Compromise is love. Compromise is a promise of a future. 

Our guard had to leave early today. He went to be with his wife in the hospital. He said he though she might be having a miscarriage. 

Oh no, this would be her third one. How old is she? 

I think 16. 

Well that makes sense. At least her husband is willing to be with her during this time. 

Yea. I hope more young husbands are being open and involved with pregnancy and sexual health. Maybe I will talk with him about contraception. He may be getting pressure from family to have a child. 

Wow, he seems nice. 

He is, he is very patient, and good with his kids. 

How many kids does he have?

14

Oh… his poor wife. 

Well, he has three wives. 

At least that burden isn’t on one woman. 

Right, and he treats them all well. He pays for his children’s schooling and he doesn’t beat them. 

Good evening Sir.

Good Evening Madam. I see you are staying in Kenya for a week. What will you be doing?

I will be on holiday.

I see. Are you married?

I don’t see why that is your business.

You are beautiful. You should be married, or do you not like Africans?

I don’t want to marry anyone.

Not even me?

No officer. Not even you.

I am rich.

I am too expensive. Three hundred cows.

I have. I can pay.

But you must transport them to my father in America. Can you pay for plane tickets for three hundred cows?

Let me speak with your father.

Ok, when I return from Holiday. If you let my friends across too.

Ok.

She must be fired. She broke the rules. 

What did she do?

She hit a child. 

Did anyone explain to her that we don’t do that here? 

No. But it was in her contract. 

I understand. Hitting children is not ok. But if that is the only discipline she knows, she will be very confused when she is fired. What else was she supposed to do? And she will not have learned anything. 

What do we do with her then? 

Give her a warning. But I think we must do training on alternative methods of discipline for children. This way there is something tangible that we give her to replace with corporal punishment. 

Keep walking.

But.

Keep walking.

(whisper) But that man is beating a child!

I know. Mzee Boniface will handle it. A white person will not help.

Why?

That man will do whatever you say if you look angry. You are white. When you leave he will be even more angry and probably blame the child for his embarrassment and beat him harder.

If another African man talks with him he will be less threatened.

We need to save all of the Girls from Circumcision. All are welcome!

How will we feed them all? 

Doesn’t matter. 

How will we find enough women to take care of them?

Doesn’t matter.

How can we guarantee their safety? 

God will help us. 

Or maybe we help 40. We can afford that. 

What about the ones who cannot come? They are not safe. 

I know. What did we do last year? 

Nothing. But we banished all of the families from the church who circumcised their daughters. 

Maybe we start by educating parents now. And plan for hosting 40 girls. That way, more families will keep their daughters safe without needing to send them to camp. And welcome those families back to church that you sent away last year. 

Thats not a perfect plan. 

But it is better. 

Covers

Dress shoes, a blazer, a watch. It seemed odd to be adorned in the attire of a normal day. As she walked out the back door to the car, the only hint of disarray she portrayed were the wrinkles in her shirt. Unavoidable with no electricity to heat the iron. Sitting in the car, she held her breath hoping the intense dampness that flooded the air would not inhibit the vehicle from starting. Three hiccups and the engine purred to life. The small SUV that sat high, keeping her out of danger of the puddles and shallow flooded streets, tenderly passed over fallen branches and rubbish. This route was the most likely to keep her out of flood waters but was not a busy road, she prayed there would be no fallen trees or power lines to block her way. Her tense hands gripped the wheel and squinted as sequestered light flooded her vision from the setting sun.

The purple flowers were beautiful. The blooming season was August to October, also smack dab in the middle of the dusty dry season. That never made sense to her except maybe it was God’s way of masking the dust and trash that collected in the crevices of the inhabited parts of the world, still waiting to be washed away by the rains yet to come. Beneath the yellow and purple flowers, bold statements amid a tangle of dark green foliage, hid the plastic bottles, foil wrappers, the smell of sewage and the other parts of life that people throw out. And for a few weeks,  she could sit under her favorite tree and forget that those things were still there under the effervescent flora.

Pulling up to the River Center, she made her way to the back parking lot, where there were spaces reserved for employees and volunteers. She was in her second week of night shifts at the River Center and still new folks arrived every day. It was a different kind of hell she hadn’t expected. A hell she drove to and from like a normal day job. A hell she put on a blazer for. Each night there were new faces. Faces that carried with them the visions from their rooftops, the feel of the stadium seats in the Superdome, the uncomfortable and unloving taste of MREs. Their eyes carried many sleepless nights and on their frames hung dirty and ill fitting clothing. 

There wasn’t much real work of any kind she could do. It was night time, those that could sleep did, and she was left to care for the ghosts. 

Mama’s dresses were a bit like those flowers. They didn’t come out of the chest very often. They lay in the bottom inside out and folded in crisp neat rectangles, waiting for an occasion to be pulled out and worn, to be complimented and preened over. Today was going to be one of those days. She heard the sounds of her mother bathing inside the dirt floor house as she washed dishes outside. The water being lifted above her body and poured over her dark skin, the gasp that escaped her as the cold made first contact. The silence of fresh soap and the towel that hugged her dry. Then came the dress. She knew which one mama would choose because it was the only one that would fit with her stomach so large now. It was green, with little geometric stripes of pink and blue. It fell all the way to the floor in large deep folds of fabric.

Mama stepped outside with the confidence that even the trees quaked in front of. For today she did not have worries, she was wearing her flowers.

There were new folks arriving every day, and sometimes their stories rose after dark, a macabre dance that refused rest to those who silently carried them. Pacing bodies turned up in the lit hallways as they fled the ghosts that pursued them in the darkness. Indeed sometimes the ghosts were laid to rest. 

Once she sat with a man all night. She had stolen him a cup of coffee from the staff room and together they ushered away those things that haunted him. The next night he had waited for her to return to tell her that he had located his family and would be reuniting with them in Houston. She also considered these days some of her best Social Work. No paper filing, no organizing, no denying of services because of lack of funding. 

Tonight there was a particular feeling in the halls. She couldn’t quite place it but it was unsettling in her stomach. The paper cup of coffee in her hand bitter from boiling in the pot all day suddenly seemed undrinkable. 

There was only one woman up tonight. She appeared to be in her fifties, and was wearing blue jeans and a hoodie, an outfit not quite fitting her demure form. Her pacing revealed the brown dirt that was collecting on her socked feet. 

They lived not that far from the church but it didn’t feel that way with Mama having to stop every five minutes to pee in the bushes. Mama had told her she needed to start carrying the water, that she was old enough but she figured it was because it was too hard to lift the buckets on her head with the baby so close. She had an empty bucket with her today since the church had good clean rainwater that was healthiest for pregnant women. It didn’t seem like a great idea for Mama to be walking to the Church today, something was off, but she dared not suggest that. What did she know anyway, she had not had a baby, she didn’t know what the signs of health were. And the dress had been waiting to be worn. So they slowly made their way down the rutted path.

They arrived an hour later. Two large Safari vehicles were parked in the shade of the tree that sat next to the oddly shaped church building. It had six sides, she once heard the white pastor call it a “hexagon.” The sounds of singing and hand clapping greeted them first as they entered the room. They were not too late if they were still singing.

The woman with the hoodie had been pacing for over an hour. “How are you doing tonight Ma’am?” 

The woman stopped and turned making eye contact with the her, seeming to take in all at once the blazer, the dress shoes, the cooling coffee in the paper cup, and the bags under the eyes. The whole look as ill fitting of such a place as her hoodie and jeans was of her slim frame. She took the several steps to the white plastic table and sat across from her, still not speaking. 

“You look familiar,” said the Social Worker, “do I know you from somewhere?” 

The woman stared still. “Do you know where I can get a cup of coffee?” The woman croaked in a voice that suggested she hadn’t spoken to anyone in a while. 

“Give me a minute,” said the Social Worker, her sensible dress shoes connecting with the floor in brisk vibrations as she ducked into the small kitchenette with the sign on the door that read “EMPLOYEES ONLY”. 

She emerged a few seconds later with a paper cup in one hand, and paper packets of cream and sugar in the other. She placed the cup in front of the woman who took up the sugar and cream packets and methodically poured them into the cup one by one till they were all empty, then stirred the light brown mixture with her index finger. She sat staring at the coffee for several minutes without lifting the cup to drink. 

“Was your father a minister in New Orleans in the 1980’s,” the woman asked? 

At the front of the church were several Wazungu. They always came in clothes that seemed to not quite fit. They came in dull colors, boring patterns, and loose cuts. She pitied their poor style, taking pride in the numerous crisp bright dresses her mother kept secreted away in the chest. “Jambo,” said each of the white women in turn to the crowd that was gathered. That was usually the only word white people seemed to know. It sounded strange coming from their mouths, slow and warped, “jumbow.” They were from a place called Tennessee, she wondered if that was close to New York.

Next to her, her mother was breathing hard. “Are you ok Mama,” she asked? The woman nodded but kept a firm hold around her belly which was poking out despite the great folds of the dress. The skinny bench on which she sat seemed unable to hold all of the exuberant color that came from Mama’s dress and the beads of sweat gathering like diamonds all over her skin.

Her teacher was translating the strange words the guests were speaking but she wasn’t listening to the Swahili, she wanted to hear the English. She tried willing it to make sense but it didn’t work.  Next to her, her mother had sunk lower on the bench and was whispering to another Mama who was helping her to stay seated.

It turned out that they did know each other. The connection from way back had loosened the woman up a bit. “Oh your father was the best minister we ever had,” she said. She continued on to talk about her family and “what all the kids are into these days.” 

After a long pause the woman put her coffee cup down once more and stared into it as she had done earlier. The ghost had been aroused again from the place she had buried it. She sighed at the question that was not asked, but that she had to answer. 

“We stayed.” Words she had heard several times at this table. “We stayed until the mayor got on the news and said to leave, but it was too late by then. The roads were over crowded and there was no gas at any of the stations. So we stayed anyway.” 

Mama and the other woman rose and left, in a quiet but frantic shuffle. Mama was grasping her belly. “Maybe she needed to pee again, it was hard for her to squat these days. The other woman was going with her to help her out,” the girl thought to herself.

The girl was lulled into a trance by the strange words of the Wazungu. She roused when the Pastor’s wife rose to lead some singing. Where was Mama? She glanced outside at the purple color that was spreading across the sky. She walked to the doorway of the church with six sides and peered out, her eyes adjusting to the dusty light. Far away in the field she saw the green dress with pink and blue shapes, they blended with the sky and the flowers that grew next to her favorite tree.

The quiet and sustained noise coming out of Mama drew her out of the church and into the field.

“Once the levees broke we could only pray,” her voice lowered, as if a whisper could slip out without disturbing the ghosts. “When the water started seeping into the house we prayed, but it kept rising,” a single tear squeezed itself out of the corners of her eye. “So we prayed it wouldn’t reach the second floor, but it did.” 

“Run home and get the knife and some blankets,” the woman told the girl as she approached her panting mother. “Now.”

So she ran faster than she ever did before.

“Then we climbed into the attic and cut a hole in our roof.” Her voice cracked and rose in volume as she lost control of whatever had been residing inside of her. The wet tears muddying her words and dropping at her restless feet. 

“We sat on the roof in the pitch black. I cannot recall another time in my life when New Orleans was that silent. No music, no talking, no animal sounds. And we had no idea how far the water had come up. How much time until we would be swallowed up too.” 

The girl had it all wrapped in a Kanga as she tore out of the house. She had lost her shoes along the way. As she retraced her way back to the field, her toe connected with a rut and her body slid into the dust as the parcel went flying. Feeling a warm dampness amidst the stinging places on her body she rose and continued running, refusing to look down at the blood and dust that now covered her.

She arrived when the noise had passed, missing or perhaps shielding her, from her Mother’s cries as she delivered her new little sister into the world. With singing still coming from the church, the other Mama cut the cord with the knife she had brought. Mama’s dress was now stained the colors of labor, but as she held her new baby in the field, the sky painted her crisp vibrant dress above them, and the colors were reflected in the diamonds of sweat on her skin and the dampness in her eyes.

“I only was able to tell that the water had stopped climbing when the sun began to rise. The purple sun reflected on the muddy water not a foot from where we were trapped. My husband had fallen asleep. I think I was the only person awake in the whole city.” Her body had ceased trembling and was still. Her voice low once again. 

“I was given one gift that morning. I saw all around me, close and far, the spirits of the city rising up out of the blackness to join the purple of the sky.” The spirits of the ones who didn’t make it to their roofs. The ones who chose to stay. And some who had been dwelling in the old city long before the floods came. 

The Wazungu joined the three figures outside in the field. The secret of the child’s birth having been found out.

The woman sighed, expelling those things that had been resting within her.

“Tumaini, we shall name her Tumaini,” said Mama.

And the Social Worker gathered her things and left, driving home in the purple light of the morning.

summer purple flower germany
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

**A Note: Thank you to my Mother and to the visitors from Northside UMC for the seeds to these stories. I hope you will forgive artistic license.

Five Hundred Twenty-five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes

My first birthday in Tanzania happened this month. Now that I’m over the twenty-one years mark I’m vaguely getting hints of why folks a generation older than me sometimes grumble about birthdays rather than get excited to throw a rager party. And as far as I know, there are no more familiar pop songs to represent my age; Taylor Swift tapped out after her song “22” (though someone did suggest I look up the song “I Am My Own Grandpa” by Willie Nelson). This travesty of being unable to project my future for the next year through a repetitive and dated pop song leads me to my current situation. How do I mark time here?

My perplexed state is not so much about pop music but rather that I am realizing all the things I am used to marking the passage of time by are not applicable to me right now. I had just finished my training to be a Global Mission Fellow as a shiny new Twenty-two year old. All of a sudden I am a dusty ole Twenty-three year old. This is the first year I have had no summer break-a tough transition I’m sure many of you can relate to. Indeed there are seemingly no seasonal changes here. No anticipated coming of the pumpkin spice lattes or any coffee for that matter (I import from four hours away). Although the actual harvesting of pumpkins is the promise of delicious soups and boiled pumpkin for breakfast. My wardrobe has no need of changing. There is no “sweater weather” here and instead I am drawn to the continuously lightening color of my now well worn blue jeans after many days spent drying in the relentless African sun while the two long sleeve shirts I possess collect dust and a funny smell.

I can’t judge passage of time by folks growing lack of interest in me as I had hoped, but rather, it takes twice as long to walk through town as more and more people work up the courage to interact with the Mzungu who they know now lives I their town, and because I actually know people now. I can measure time by the number of cobs of grilled corn, fresh milk, and mandazi I have bought without need because I wanted to show kindness to my neighborhood businesses.

I have recently realized that I have passed  the “six month pizza mark.” When I first arrived in Tanzania I learned that the westerners here have a system of communicating about the western food options available. You label the available burgers, pizza, and pasta by how long you have to be removed from Western society to appreciate them. And a few months ago I crossed the “six month pizza” line, meaning that now many many months in, I am ok with eating the quite sad interpretation of “pizza” from the only restaurant in Tarime that has the option when I get a craving. Also the only cheese available in Tarime is on this six month pizza. The three week burger obtained in the larger city of Mwanza is literally heaven.

Perhaps more surprising a marker of passage of time is my fading cravings for western food. No worries, I still use seasonings like a good Louisianan. I have learned that sweet potato, boiled pumpkin, and fried cassava  with a cup of coffee are great breakfast options. I can chow down on a whole boiled fish- and just like a crawfish you gotta suck the head. At some point I stopped caring as much about the next time I was going to get to eat a burger and realized the best guarantee of not getting a bacteria infection or food poisoning when eating out is to eat at the local restaurants. Cooking Bananas, sort of like plantains, are now a regular on the menu. I had a craving for dagaa the other day- small, minnow-like fish that are fried whole and served with ugali usually. I could also mark time by my ever improving skills at cleaning rice, something that is necessary if you don’t want to crack your teeth on little rocks. While I never choose to eat the brown ugali, I will admit that it has more flavor than the ugali made with cassava or mahindi. Once I asked for a second helping of ugali (not brown), and I will drink busara if it is offered.

The caked dust on my suitcase was also an indication of time passed when I pulled it out from under my bed this week. So was the family of spiders living in it. Or I could mark time by the number of altercations with mice (three) and how my reactions have evolved to these catastrophic situations. By the second time, I sighed and laid full body on the floor to do yoga.

Children are also great markers of time, they can grow quite a bit in ten months. And the little girl I now get to call my niece, who was terrified of coming within ten feet of me when we first met, now calls me Aunty Bena and insists on sitting in my lap and “doing work” with me. Or I could mark time by the number of hugs I have gotten. Kuria people, the predominant tribe in my region, don’t really like to show affection, so the number of hugs, some quick and embarrassed, some propelled by tiredness, others a proud show of welcome, are each an indication of significant time spent building a relationship.

Time is certainly soaked into the surprisingly dark tan that now covers my face and neck, arms, and feet (no shorts here). And I have finished off a half-full container of vaseline that I have had for several years. Apparently even white people need the moisturizing powers of vaseline in Tanzania.

Then there are the lessons learned, I could mark time that way I guess. The most important lesson to date being learning the appropriate euphemism for asking to use the restroom in polite company, “Naenda kupiga dawa” (“I’m going to dig for medicine”). Or my wardrobe alterations. I learned that sandals are great for visiting because you must remove your shoes when entering a home, and that waterproof sandals are perfect for washing dishes unless you want your nice leather ones ruined by repeatedly splashing through water between trips to the community tap. And I am now a fan of the “kanga” a piece of beautifully decorated cloth that women wrap around themselves when doing hard work. It preserves your clothes underneath from needing washing quite as often-there is dust everywhere, on the ground, on chairs, on children’s grabbing fingers, in the wind.

I have learned that the place I live in, that felt like camping when I first moved in, with little separation between me and the elements, now feels like a home despite the lil critters that visit me every once in a while. And sometimes, even the mud brick homes I visit with dirt floors and thatch roofs, feel like a home if the conversation and the tea are good. I have learned to navigate some of the narrow foot paths and cow trails in the village, and I walk these trails reticent of a national park nature hike every day in sandals and skirts either knowing exactly where I am going or at least aware of the general direction and confident that I can figure it out as I go. I still can never tell if the rustling bushes will produce a chicken, goat, cow or child though.

So just as the opening number in the musical “Rent” says, there are many ways to measure the passage of time, to measure a year. Just because the way I measure time is different from how I used to or how my family and friends in America do, doesn’t mean I shouldn’t honor those things and the time spent. Four hugs may not seem like many, but I value them and their significance.  My tan is not a fashion statement, but a reminder of the many days I spend an hour walking to and an hour walking back from the village in the sun. Here, now, it is enough to know that time does pass even though the sun continues to beat down all times of the year, even though I still feel like a stranger sometimes, and even though I have a four to six hour Christmas service to look forward to this year.

Watching “This is America” in Tanzania

It is the Fourth of July. Independence Day for the United States of America, the day the Declaration of Independence was signed. A document that stoically declined its colonial status. A document that proclaimed the thirteen former colonies of Great Britain were now a self-governed new nation that would no longer pay tribute or submit to the rulings of any outside government. This was not the end, there was much blood shed, many decades of proving our worth as an independently ruled nation, writing our own vision for the country we wanted to live in. I would like to share with you three occurrences that are inspiring me to honor this earliest of American tenants.

The first was an email I received informing all Global Mission Fellows of the immigration struggles of three United Methodist Missionaries placed in the Philippines. They are three young people who work with an organization based in Davao, Philippines. After uncovering some human rights violations through this organization, one was put in a detention center and has been there for over six weeks, another has had her passport confiscated and the third has been put on government watch lists. These measures mean that none of them are permitted to return to their home countries. We as Global Mission Fellows and other UMC missionaries step into our roles of service with the understanding that this kind of trouble is a possibility. This is not the first time the UMC has had issues with missionaries being detained. It is still rather scary. However it is one of the risks that is necessary when you step into the world of international justice work. The struggles of my brothers and sister in the Philippines is a sobering reminder of the delicate nature of working for justice while at the mercy of the governments under which we must make our way carefully.

That being said, as an American, I have great comfort and confidence in my country’s ability to help me out of such situations. And returning home, even if it were after a rough bit of time, would be welcome and nothing but a joy.

The second experience was watching a clip from a Documentary. An old classmate of mine from high school is an up and coming filmmaker in the Baton Rouge area. I had the pleasure of watching a very short clip of a documentary she recently directed about the summer of 2016 in Baton Rouge. That was the summer before my senior year of University. It was the summer I was helping at a local bike shop that served mostly young Black kids from Old South Baton Rouge neighborhoods. That was the summer that Alton Sterling was shot not far from that bike shop. There were several protests. I recall being astonished that Baton Rouge was waking up and being proactive. I chose not to participate in the large protests. I wanted to be part of the long-term, long-lasting change.

So I attended Together Baton Rouge meetings, I kept working at that bike shop, I was set on the marathon, not the sprint. Then there were “Historic Floods,” and many Baton Rouge citizen breathed a sigh as all efforts energetically turned to mucking out, spraying for mold, and replacing sheet rock. This documentary reminded me not to forget. I heard again the stories of those that were there at the protests, how violent it was, how it is embarrassing to be singled out as a target by a full grown man in riot gear, how insulting, how devastating. And how quickly locals were willing to forget and move on to things that “brought us together” like disaster recovery. I do not believe Baton Rouge has returned to addressing the historical issues of race and class that the summer of 2016 brought to the surface. And if I’m honest, this local justice work is more intimidating to me than going to a country on the other side of the world and doing justice work.

I have thought a lot on my choices then, and about my friends who chose to march. Did they see it as a choice? I wonder often if I made the right call. I heard many frustrated testimonies of Baton Rouge Residents who felt like their work was undermined by the young upstarts who just wanted the publicity and a quick answer. I heard my peers anguish in feeling overlooked for the sake of a “long-term” solution, and hasn’t the fight been long enough? Is my “marathon” argument about strategy or about fear of also being labeled a criminal, fear of the indignity, of no longer being safe in my own country, like so many are already experiencing?

The third experience was watching Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” with an eleven year old Tanzanian boy. Adopted son of two Americans, this kid has a unique world view. He is not Tanzania American, he is Tanzanian, despite applications for American citizenship. So this African boy, like many other African young men I have met, really likes American hip hop music. And this boy, like many other African boys I have encountered, has lots of questions for me. We watched the music video together. I was very uncomfortable, wondering if he was old enough to watch it, wondering what exactly he was understanding in the video.

The dancing, some of the costumes, appear very similar to modern East African culture. He asks me if the singer is African. A few seconds into the video Glover shoots a man point blank. He asks me if that man actually was shot or if it was pretend. He laughs at the church choir. He asks, “Are they singing at the funeral for the guy he shot?” He stands to mimic the dancers on the screen. He’s pretty good. After we watch it twice he gets bored and walks away. I sighed with relief that I didn’t have to field a firestorm of questions.

He returns a half hour later, having apparently processed the video and ready for answers. So, how to explain to a boy who is African, who is fighting to be American? An incredibly smart kid who will fall into that haunting and circular identity of an African who is American. A kid who will be expected to take on the history of a people he has little historical identity with, a dilemma explained so thoughtfully by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book Americanah. What do I say to a boy who idolizes American Rap and RnB, who internalizes beats and slang, but has no idea of their worn history, or of the segmented, violent, and restricting country out of which this fermented, full-bodied culture stems? How to explain that it is my country but not a story I can give personal experience to? How to explain that there is likely more intelligibility to him and his world view in this music video than there is to me?

martin-luther-king-and-malcolm-x

So I also wonder today especially, why these three events cling together in my mind. The news about my fellow international workers has exposed my own internalized relationship with authority. Being privy to updates about these three and also having to ask questions about how I might react to a similar situation has helped me to understand my tenuous relationship with the American justice system. As terrifying and real as international sanctions, deportation, and imprisonment are, I always have the United States. Unlike the immigrants that seek new lives in the United States, I do not fear returning to my home country, and it emboldens me to do what is important on an international scale.

The documentary then asks the question, “what about when you must challenge the powerful forces of government and prejudice in your own country?” What happens when we become the immigrants fleeing home and heritage? Do we see the laws and authority in power as ultimate and unfailing?

The foundation of the United States, is that of a group of people who realized that political borders are in fact of no greater value than the worth they gave to them. However it is a foundation that many would hope we do not remember. Too often I see my government and official authority as ultimate in power and justice. Despite my intentional efforts to not grant permission through silence and inaction, it is very tempting to give too much control to the authority that has in most cases worked in my favor, that looks like me, that sees me as upstanding and unthreatening. I often catch myself falling into the fantasy of a system that will run itself, a system that is infallible, right, and just, despite it’s very structure which is designed for alterations and change. Not to mention the many many examples in history of our need to continue to pursue and reshape the idea of a free country for all people. Part of the American history of protest is to remind our government that we are not to be bullied, that we do not quake at the authority we have given our lawmakers and peacekeepers. Challenging the authority of my own government is also forfeiting the security of knowing that I am “one of the good ones.” It is giving up the entitled inheritance of “freedom,” for the possibility of human dignity for all of my American brothers and sisters. I am not advocating anarchy, or a collapse of our system, but for the continual refinement of an imperfect system of government designed for just that purpose.

My viewing of “This is America,” is the shock of a very old, very tired fact that no, America is not a place of equality, or of safety, or of dignity. But it should be, and it still can be. As the world watches us, as little Tanzanian boys admire and calculate and learn, we must embody the enigma we birthed on the fourth of July 1776. We must be demanding of our leadership, we must not seek acceptance from the few in power but demand excellence from them. We must always remember that the most solid barriers are those that we allow to take root in our minds.

I am a visitor here in Tanzania, while I am doing my best to live with folks here, these conflicts are not mine, I can only support. I am American, every conflict that involves an American, an aspiring American, American government, is mine to take part in. It is my duty to other Americans, to the freedoms I enjoy, to friends who are learning first hand the indignities of being falsely labeled a criminal, a threat, and un-American. It is my duty to those who fear returning to their home countries, and to little Tanzanian boys who are watching our every move, learning from our choices. It is my duty, it is our duty.

This is not a new perspective, it is perhaps the oldest of American perspectives. And that is why we should keep talking about it. What are the barriers you have set for yourself? How will you begin to tear them down? Who will help you?

 

“As I went walking I saw a sign there

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.”

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,

That side was made for you and me.”

-Woody Guthrie, “This Land is Your Land”