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?
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.
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.
(whisper) But that man is beating a child!
I know. Mzee Boniface will handle it. A white person will not help.
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?
How will we find enough women to take care of them?
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.
My relationship with this dish has been fraught with both cultural and kitchen mishaps. Before I share the recipe with you I feel as though I must share how I became aquinted with the grouping of rice dished called “Pilau.” Tanzania, especailly the coastal areas … Continue reading Cooking with Benadetta- Africanish Pilau
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.
**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.
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.
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?
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?
We are the crazy Wazungu that bring disposable diapers and peanut butter. Diapers for the new baby and peanut butter for the mother. Peanut butter comes in a large tub resembling a bucket. It is the cheap stuff, with oil and wispy particles floating to the top, the bottom is stiff and compact. I switch to a knife as my attempts to mix it become more like stabs into a raw chunk of steak. All Momma wants to eat right now is bread, “but she needs the protein,” Lisa says, so I’m mixing cheap peanut butter over a board and bucket counter top. I think Lisa also wanted to get it because Robina likes it too. “Karanga! Karanga!” She says over and over again, impatience clear in her voice as I aggressively stab the peanut butter that in the United States, blond college graduates wearing LuluLemon will buy in dainty glass containers with expensive labels from health food stores. The separated mess of oil and groundnuts somehow made “designer” by the need to mix it together by hand, convenience is for those who cannot afford quality.
Mama and baby are both weak, her milk hasn’t come in yet and baby is hungry. The duka didn’t have size one diapers, just size two. So the fussy baby is laying in a diaper that swathes him like a kanga worn by an expecting mother, from his chest to his knees. Momma and big sister are eating the peanut buttered bread and little brother is quietly squirming on Bibi Lisa’s knees. I good-naturedly argue with the Dadas that have come in full force to help. “Unamgeni,” they say, you are a guest. Each time I pick up a broom, reach for a pot handle, or fill a tray, “unamgeni!” So I sit on the sofa and pretend to look at my phone in this house with no electricity, where drinking water is collected from the rain storms, and cloth diapers dry on the line out front. These are the peaceful hours. These are the peaceful hours for the father who, moments after the birth told me to, “go home, the hard part is over.” These are the peaceful hours for the crazy Wazungu who brought disposable diapers and peanut butter. These are the peaceful hours for Dada Kubwa Robina, who is learning how to be careful and look after her new Kaka Dogo. These are the peaceful hours when we drink fresh chai from the garden, the kind that tastes like Fruit-loops when you add just the right amount of sugar and milk.
For this land, all of the hours have been peaceful. Last night, when I said, “piga simu taxi,” call the taxi, the land said, “Don’t worry, you will be fine. You are not the first Mama whom we have ushered safely to the hospital.” When we, Mama, Baba, and Aunty Bena stumbled out of the house, with wash basin, kangas, a clean blade, birthing pad, and sterile gauze, the land was calm. As we pushed through rough corn fields, the stalks bent willingly, “you are not the first,” they said, “good luck.” As we stopped in the pitch dark and waited till Mama could walk again through the pain, the uneven dirt road led us around the potholes and mud puddles.
I remember looking up into a starry night in Big Bend years ago and thinking that it was the inspiration for the masterful piece of art bearing that name. Last night, it was as if we were wrapped in the stars. Electricity has not arrived here yet, and amidst the granite black vastness, each glittering jewel was close enough to touch, even to pick out of it’s burrowed nest. But like each night time traveler, we chose to let them glitter in their settings, fearing a future night without the stars. So they remain for another needy wanderer, may they too leave them as they are. For Mama, like her baby she now swaddles, she did not see the stars, or the ink black night, she didn’t see anything. She just kept walking, taking hold of a hand offered, stepping around the deep ruts that cut into the earth. But the sky, the cooling air, swaddled her in that blanket of glittering jewels. “Don’t worry,” it said, you don’t know what is coming next but to survive now, you don’t need to see. Just keep walking.
I placed the baby next to Mama on the bed, helping him find her nipple, praying the milk would come soon. At the touch of her newly arrived son she shuddered, having not forgotten his violent entrance into the world. Perhaps remembering also Robina’s birth. Remembering how the Doctor saw death in her eyes and left the room, baby still half inside of her. This tiny thing that needs her, reminding her only that she is now needed and there is no respite from that. A new baby does not mean that Robina is now independent, but instead that she must find from somewhere twice as much love, or at least energy.
“The hard part is over now,” her husband had said, which for her meant that her struggle now, in the peaceful moments, was hers alone to bear. Baba is overjoyed at the birth of his baby boy, he has fulfilled his duties and pressures. He is now peacefully, through no fault of his own, more of a man, with approval from his father and men of this village, and he has given his wife the blessing of a son. And Mama cannot stand over the choo alone. She must forgo dignity in order to keep upright. The hard part is over now. Her body still retaining her pregnant shape, the pads still have blood, reminding her of the tearing, then the stitching. And always her son is sucking. Searching for the milk she doesn’t know how to find. The hard part is over now. She hears that as the pain seizes her stomach when she shifts to her other side, an echo that will not let her forget the pain of her husband’s gift. The hard part is over now. And she remembers the first conversation she ever had with Aunty Bena and Bibi Lisa, about ways to keep from having children. Baba didn’t want her to take the pills. Maybe now that he has his son he will not care as much.
In a lighter moment, when baby has fallen asleep, she lets her tired show for Bibi Lisa. There is joking, she smiles once, and maybe the hard part is over. Then the unknowing comment, “you should wait at least six months the way you are healing.” Ah yes, she remembered again how this worked. The hard part is over. Baba is a good husband, not afraid of cooking, willing to help out while she is weak, overjoyed by his new son. But the hard part is over now. She recalled Robina as a baby, and saying no to Baba. He is a good husband, but still there is an edge, he is kind as long as she lets him make the decisions, as long as she does not put her needs before his. She recalled before then, Robina the not-yet-named peanut growing in her belly that ushered in a discreet union. A passion they couldn’t wait for in the beginning she now dreaded. She told him it still hurt. He never saw her weak naked body in the choo, ready to faint, changing the bloody pads in her underwear. Each cramp reminded her again that her life was not worth as much as that Doctor’s good name. Baba didn’t known these things, but she couldn’t ask him to help. Not for his sake but her own, some things she didn’t want him to see. She needed him to see her only as strong, capable. Some things were too personal, too sacred for him. So the hard part is over. He told her once that birth-control would make her fat. Now that the hard part is over, her belly remained swollen, though empty on the inside. She smiled, he couldn’t get everything he wanted. She was ashamed that she found pleasure in this. And she was ashamed of the other thing she couldn’t tell him, that she was not yet ready to be happy, that with every suck on her dry nipple, it felt like the tiny infant was leaching away at her soul. Her body convulsed again, forgetting that the baby had already been born. Refusing to let her forget how afraid she was, she is.
It is the third day of her being a mother of two. She can finally walk to the other room on her own. Her milk has come in, and the baby cries less, poops more, eats all the time. The more she gains strength, she knows the Dadas will go back to their own homes, that Baba will begin to grow impatient, that he will want the Wazungu to leave. She visits with Aunty Bena late in the evening, hoping she will fall asleep by her side. Her Mother in Law, Mamkubwa, is here too, lurking close by, offering feminine advice. The same advice her husbands family gave her. It was not advice for healing, but how to conceal pain, how to swallow fear, how to return to her duties as servant and mother as soon as possible. She cannot be sure, but in the rough touches, in the quick words of Mamkubwa she feels resentment, like she too is remembering her scars, that when she had given birth and wanted warmth and rest she received only rough touches and quick words.
So she gives Mamkubwa as many errands as she will take, and Aunty Bena sits with her instead. She wants to be swaddled, wants feminine hands to bather her in warm water, to feed her from a milky breast, to sleep by her side under the glittering sky. Her husband prays in the evening with all of the visitors gathered round, thanking Baba Wetu, Our Father, for this blessing of a child, especially a son. She knows Robina is also loved, but she is loved even more so because she now has a brother, as if her father was reserving love for his whole family until he had the thing that would make him the most proud and give him the most respect. Robina would never be that for him. So while he and his Father God rejoice that the hard part is over, her secret prayer is to a different God.
Despite my location I could have been buried in the thick lazy descriptions of a Truman Capote summer afternoon. Perched uncomfortably on a too skinny bench, the shade of the tree provided no shelter from the UV rays seeping into my skin which was ever deepening to a more violent shade of red. I had long ago given up on shooing the flies away, and they did swarm to me like the cooking piece of meat that I was. My discomfort had drawn my focus completely to maintaining a lady like sitting position, having regretted the choice of a dull yellow knee length pencil skirt after hour two of the meeting. I was coveting the brightly patterned Kitenges worn by the stately Tanzanian women, they fell to mid calf or to the ground and many had pulled out extra lengths of cloth to lay over their heads, shielding their necks from the relentless sun. A low- hanging branch would occasionally tap me in the back of the head, each time causing me to reach up and vigorously scratch my neck, which was also reddening in the sun. Little Anabeth would wander over to her mother, the headmistress of the school, and then wander away again, quickly distracted as two year olds tend to be. I could hear the greedy sucking sounds from the newborn nursing as her mother perched next to me, somehow balancing much more successfully than I.
I am not usually this observant, though I am known to wax poetic when in extreme discomfort. This time, my observations came from having nothing else to notice. We had sat in silence for about five minutes. Meetings generally are distracting affairs, there are screaming babies, people stand to walk around when they are tired, there are murmured conversations between neighbors that pull attention away from the appointed speaker. But it had all ceased. The question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted.
The region of Mara is infected with bad spirits. Where they come from is unclear. Perhaps they are as ancient as time, perhaps they were imported with the British and German colonists, taking root in the unfamiliar buildings and languages of a conquering regime. There are stories of spirits overtaking homes, hurting children and reducing guard dogs to whimpering puppies. There are stories of finding snakes in shoes, of invisible bodies sitting at the foot your bed, and of a deep deep dread that settles at the pit of your stomach when you walk down the wrong street. There is a thin veil here between our world and the spirits. A veil as thin as the cotton cloth the women use to shield their bare skin from the sun. And the spirits were making their presence known. They dared to creep as close as the church yard.
Though perhaps they had always been here? Is ground made sacred or does is become sacred by the deeds done upon it? Well, it didn’t matter, they had arrived bringing terror, fear, and hate. Perhaps they were here by our conjuring. I had opened the meeting by talking about fear. I spoke the things I had seen and felt in Gamasara. I said that homes are not restful, blessed places but violent and fearful. That this fear is not allowed to be mentioned and so it festers and boils under the surface until it explodes out of us, in a fit of rage, and it imbeds in our spouses, our children. But still we do not talk of it. I said that all of our “praise Gods,” and prayer did not cleans us of this darkness, but sent it deeper into us, making it harder and harder to extract. And our children learned from us and also did not speak of it, or if they did we ignored it, or beat them to silence.
As I spoke the spirits rose as if called, loosening from the pits of our stomachs to the fronts of our eyes. “This fear,” I said, “makes it harder to work, makes us less patient with our children, makes it harder to go to church, makes it harder to breathe, for it is like a broken leg that we do not know is broken. So we carry on limping, and the longer we carry on the worse it gets. It breaks further, it bruises, it grinds into the muscle around it. We feel it but we do not know what it is, it is the only thing we can think about, yet it remains a mystery.” Yes we were in dangerous territory, there was no option for retreat now. So I pressed on, “tell me what your broken bones are.” A slow trickle of confidence ground out the soft rock below it until it was a thunderous fall. The outpouring of words flooded our circle. “I am afraid that my husband will beat me every time he drinks,” “There is no money for food if I bring it home, my husband takes it all and I don’t know for what.” “My neighbor almost died in childbirth last year and now she is pregnant again,” “my child keeps getting in trouble in class and he was a perfect student a month ago.” And they kept speaking, each word bringing the spirits out, summoning them all to this place, pooling around us until we all sat exhausted. We were spent, and a deceitfully lazy silence fell upon us. What was at first an oppressively hot afternoon became threatening. No longer was the oppression a lulling to sleep, to rest, to lay down our words until a later, unknown time. no, the sirens were revealing their true forms and they were ugly.
“Who will start to end our fear?” In a final stand the evil which had been dragged into the unrelenting sun revolted. Pinning us all down, silencing us where we sat, we were unable to answer. As if that question had stolen their voices and pinned them down, slowly suffocating each of the brightly clad women where they sat. As if strapped down they each looked straight ahead or down at their laps, hands at their sides, feet planted. The words, “I will,” sat just behind their teeth. Closed mouths became prisons for their own liberation, and the evil we had spoken was sewing our lips shut, resisting our stand against it. The branch tickling my neck became a jagged thorn bush, trying to silence my mouth by way of burrowing through my neck. The flies were not an oblivious nuisance but miniature terrors slowly eating away at me. Yet we remained frozen. I could do nothing else, it was for these women to finish.
And Anabeth wandered over again, the goodness of a child slicing through the evil that was thickening around us. Indeed we had summoned all the spirits to us, the evil and the divine. This divine child cut us loose from the trance we had entered. “I will,” said one voice, followed by another and another. Not every woman spoke, but the evil in each of us had been loosened, weakened by the promise of healing. I don’t know the origin of this evil. I do know that it shall not win. I also know that the grace we need is also found in this place, it is not imported. It is heard during the women’s discussion over morning Chai, it falls over the mountains with the battering rainstorms, and sticks to your white canvass shoes like squishy mud. I don’t know when the evil arrived, but the Grace has been here since She breathed over the face of the waters. There is no place too deep in a woman for this Grace to reach.
We are learning to feel our broken bones, there will be much more pain, but there is yet another dawn.