Pretty Shoes

“But that was yesterday. How do you still remember?”

This was the question one of my colleagues asked me. How do I still remember? 

The incident to which she was referring had occurred the day before, at an event I had helped plan. Our work of seeking healing from the traumas of family violence has made a big splash in the village. One that will be lasting, but the road is still very difficult for many women. And a road that will lead many back into a reality they have worked hard to shield themselves from when they do not see a way out. 

These stories, how do I remember these stories?

Several months ago I had a shoe emergency. I was walking through the market on a rather muddy day, when the strap to my left sandal gave up the ghost and I was left with only one working shoe.  So I did the only thing I could, I turned to the woman selling shoes only three feet from me and bought a pair. In my relief that I had found such a quick solution, it took me the ten minute walk back to my house to realize something terrible, they consisted wholly of hot pink rubber and were adorned with three glittery stones on each strap. If you know me at all then you know that this was indeed a trying moment in my life and a challenge to my identity which up to this point had had nothing to do with pink sparkly shoes. Yet I put them on every day. 

Since this first shock I have hardly thought of the offending color of my shoes, or how inaccurately my personality is conveyed by those three plastic diamonds on each one. They are quite a popular discussion topic at work when they make an appearance every once in a while on days when I expect rain. My boss even calls them my “pretty shoes.” 

I was recounting the origin of my “pretty shoes” to my colleague the other day. After I had finished, she shook her head in confusion. “But you see them every day. How do you not remember how much you dislike them every time you look at them?” 

How do I not remember? 

After a celebration of International Women’s Day, we closed with the announcement of our new small groups. Groups that would, through story telling, offer a safe community to mourn and heal from the violence women carry from generation to generation. It was after this announcement that we discovered the woman weeping alone outside. After she had let out all that she could through tears, she spoke. She spoke with great courage about how she had been sleeping outside of her house for the past five nights. That her husband had kicked her out of the house once he started drinking and had not yet let her back in. She spoke of staying for her children. She spoke about how she didn’t know how she could keep doing this, but where could she go with all five of the kids? Who could she burden with that many bodies? Our announcement, that small bit of recognition, was all this woman needed to shed her layers of protection. 

How do I still remember?

Other women encircled her and listened calmly, her story resonating with many of them as well. After a time, the group dispersed and the weeping woman rose, once again assembling her armor, and returned to her home, which she could not enter. 

“I guess I got used to them,” I said as I looked down at my offending and arrogant “pretty shoes.” 

How do I not remember? 

How do we still remember? 

This woman does not have the luxury of carrying her anger with her every single day, her load is already too heavy. Every day she puts on her own pretty shoes. And soon they are normal. They are functional. They are what is available. 

So when we hear about the pretty shoes that others wear, we must help them remember. We must be angry. We must seek justice. 

Many of us have a pair of pretty shoes. And it makes us want to forget the stories, because they remind us of how tenuous our own lives are, how close to despair we actually are. 

How do we remember?

We must remember. We must remember that we are not a burden, that our stories do not take up too much room, that our tears are not embarrassing, that shared words make us strong. 

If you must, then put on your pretty shoes. And tell everyone you can about them, so that they can remember for you, and remind you, that you are worth more. 

Listen with love and reverence to stories that search for ears. Hear them well, tell them again if they need telling. 

Remember. Only when we remember the absurdity and arrogance of the pink rubber and sparkly stones can we enact change.


The Tourist

Safari: a Kiswahili word that means “trip” or “journey.” 

While I write this I am seated in a small cafe-like restaurant attached to an Oryx Gas Station in the Kilimanjaro area of Tanzania. More specifically, I chose the closest and cheapest place to plant myself and my few bags for the next six hours as I await the arrival of my parents from the Kilimanjaro International Airport. The next six hours seems equivalent to the almost year and a half I have spent away from them so far. From my vantage point at a table sipping good Kilimanjaro coffee, brushing off the stray ant here and there that cannot distinguish my arms and legs from their regular lawn furniture highways, I have observed countless safari vehicles of “Wazungu” being carried into and out of the airport. I have more than once in my life been the traveler, the visitor carted around in gas guzzling monstrosities, curious of the things outside but also cautious of the unfamiliar terrain. 

My first lessons in being a tourist came from my parents, who found a way each summer of taking my brother and I on a trip. Those earliest years I remember trips to the beach, and the four hour drive down to the coast feeling like a lifetime. I remember being instructed on the rules of the Beach: always make sure a grown up knows where you are, don’t go in the water alone, don’t pee in the water ( I may have broken that one), and remember that the ocean is nature and cannot be controlled. I remember lessons about how to follow a riptide to shore, and how to treat jellyfish stings. Later we did trips to the Smokey Mountains, these were family gatherings, with Granny and Grandad and the cousins. I remember questioning if it was fair that we got to do private family worship services in our rented cabins, complete with communion just cause Grandad was a Minister. (It did not occur to me that more importantly, two members of the family were Roman Catholic.) I remember reciting “take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but tracks.” I remember lots of bandaids, old movies, daring each other to dip our feet in the cold creek water, and how that one time, Philip saw a Bear Butt! Or was it a Bare Butt? Or a Bare Bear Butt? The details are fa bit foggy. 

As my brother and I grew older, we expanded the scope of our trips: South Dakota, Maine, New Mexico, Utah, Arkansas. I had to learn how to be a tourist differently in each place, and each time I grew in my resolve that I disliked tourism and “being a tourist,” although I liked visiting places and learning new things. The child that enjoyed Disney World seemed to have disappeared in the teenager that preferred hikes of several miles and later the young adult that chose to camp alone. 

At the table next to me there are two young men speaking what sounds like Portuguese. A mother and son were seated next to them several minutes later, also speaking Portuguese. As far as I can tell they did not know each other before, but in a place where there aren’t many Portuguese speakers, this making of new friends is a joyful thing to observe. Watching them order food in English, and the servers take their orders in English (neither side seeming that confident in their English speaking abilities), is also an endearing interaction. 

My senior year of High School I upped my game, going to Italy with my choir. I learned that as a choir you get to cross a lot of velvet ropes that restrict the masses. We even sang for the Pope. It wasn’t until after that I learned he had blessed everyone in the audience. I had wondered if it was possible to respectfully turn down the blessing, or pass it on to someone else? Perhaps this making up for all of those United Methodist services my Catholic family members had to endure over the years. I remember singing in places that felt spectacular and unexpected- we didn’t always ask permission. I remember gelato, and walking through cities with fountains and statues lit up. I remember the wine on every singe table we sat at, and that I couldn’t drink any of it. Four years after this I would again travel with a choral group. This time as a college student. I remember how the velvet ropes were unhooked for us. I remember hearing the rumor that David Whitacre lived down the street from the dorms we were staying in at Cambridge, I remember the pints that I could (and did) drink. I remember slipping out early in the mornings to jog. I remember the greasy chips shops I chose over McDonalds (not all in our group as strong as I was). I remember an apple orchard, an engagement, and how Baton Rouge was flooding as we drove to the airport. 

On my flight here to meet my parents ( I live on the other side of the country), we passed over Ngorongoro crater and it was visible out of the plane window. A gentleman seated in front of me leaned back to let me know what I was seeing. Later, as we both disembarked, he gave me what I have come to call the “Mzungu Test” which usually consists of as many Kiswahili greetings as possible until the Mzungu (me) exhausts their knowledge of the language. Having passed the test, we had a lovely conversation about what brought us both to the city. It was his suggestion that has brought me to this peaceful and unexpected little cafe. 

Interjection: Some poor woman (I assume American) with a petite frame just struggled into the passenger seat of a large Safari vehicle only to realize the steering wheel is on the opposite side from cars in the US. She is now repeating the process on the actual passenger side. 

The first time I sat in a Safari vehicle was in Kenya. This journey began in New Orleans with a group of 12 and by the end I was one of two, the others having arrived after us on several different flights. Twelve was the smallest group I had ever traveled internationally with. And arriving with just one other traveler, at a time not expected by our hosts, was alarming but we got there. The sun was bright and there was so much dust and there were many people who offered us taxi rides, none of them the person we were looking for. Eventually we sorted it out and left in the right vehicle. A safari vehicle of tan color, high off the ground, no seatbelts. It was the capsule that held us protected from the searching faces of every person outside. Throughout the week it would hold cartons of drinking water, translators and guides, our belongings, the rest of the group, and bag lunches. This vehicle took me to places I would never have reached otherwise. It was also the vehicle that permitted me to eat ugali with a spoon, leave the stewed goat untouched, and most importantly, experience lifestyles and circumstances much different from my own, and then leave again. 

Since being in Tanzania, I have had two surprise visits from friends. My first surprise visit was from the Rev. Jessica Lowe who came to Tanzania for a conference. Interesting that it was happening at the same time I was not only in Tanzania, but planning a trip to the same city she would be in! Her visit got me through several months of homesickness. Later, I received word that a childhood friend of mine, Jacqueline, and her mother would be coming to Tanzania to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. They went so far as to come to my village and meet the people I work with every day, again, I hadn’t realized how much a little bit of home meant. Safaris can bring joy to those visiting and those who receive visitors. 

I have ridden several safari vehicles since the “Kenya Incident” as we fondly call it, and I will again in the next two weeks. I will not spend my time with my folks feeling guilty about the opportunity to see in person some of the most beautiful places in the world. However I shall be reverent, respectful, and gracious of these opportunities. I hope that in all of my “safaris” after this, whether my transport is a bus, a car, a scooter, or my feet, that I shall be aware and joyful of the opportunities to learn, and see and remember, even as I go on with a life that is distant and different from these adventures. I used to hate being a “tourist,” I felt babied, cliche, predictable. There is no shame in being a tourist, especially if you are the kind that picks up after yourself, tips generously and asks good questions. Yes, sometimes the locals will laugh at you, but don’t let that dampen your fun. 

Well, just two more hours now…


A Christmas Eve Wakening


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. 


*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. 

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. 


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?


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. 

Keep walking.


Keep walking.

(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? 

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. 


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

**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.