I really appreciate the quiet. I need some quiet both for my mental health and for my spiritual health. I like to pray in silence, I like to think in silence. Silence forces me to confront myself, for in the absence of distractions I am left with nothing but the things that are part of me. I thought that silence was intangible, meaning illusive, an absence of sounds, of distraction, a widening of mental space that I have the choice to fill or not fill with whatever I choose.
What a shock then to discover that, at least in Tarime, there is a price to quiet. The price is so specific I am not sure the next time I will encounter a little quiet. The price is one Coke, well, the monetary price. I was waiting for my roommate to return from work with the keys to our house, so I went to the closest restaurant to wait for her. I would have just waited under one of the shops out front of our apartment, but it was raining pretty hard and it had been a long day. So I decided to walk a little farther in hopes of ultimately being more dry and enjoying a little caffeine during the wait.
That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain
Well it rained so hard the power went out. This is important because restaurants will always have a tv playing or a radio on if the power grid allows. Having taken refuge at this particular restaurant before, I know that the television is usually on too loud when there is power. And if I had been at home I probably would have had to listen to my roommate’s music. Sure I like music, but I have noticed that Tanzanians are comfortable with a much smaller music collection than I am. My roommate will play the same song on repeat for hours, she says she just forgets it is playing. I guess I’m more sensitive to sound, cause I hear every second of that contemporary praise song that has been playing on repeat for three hours.
That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain + A power outage + An absent roommate
Besides electronic noise, there is a constant flow of what we shall call “ambient noise.” Buildings tend to be more open to the outside world here, doors and windows do not seal tightly when closed, and no air conditioning units means lots of open doors and windows any way. Well this allows the sounds of neighborhood kids, busy street traffic and calling vendors to assault my ears from the crack of dawn to late at night when sometimes the street dogs get into fights right outside my window. This rainstorm either drowned out the ambient noise or the moisture chased everyone inside for a few hours.
That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain + A power outage + An absent roommate + A whole community choosing to stay inside
I ran into the restaurant breathing hard and a little wet. I bustled in and sat in the corner, hoping to not have to field too many questions from locals about my presence here. It wasn’t until I placed my order, and sat back to catch my breath that I registered I was the only one in the room. This is when I had the revelation about quiet. About what a privilege quiet is. I have always thought of quiet as an absence of, lack of, sounds. At that moment in the empty restaurant, silence was profound and miraculous. It was heavy like a satisfying burger in your stomach, it was clean like a starched Easter dress, and it was as rare as that bird we looked for on vacation to Big Bend National Park that we never found.
That is 1 coke + A walk in the rain + A power outage + An absent roommate + A whole community choosing to stay inside + An empty restaurant
Alone in that empty room I realized that it was quiet. Perhaps for the first time in Tarime, it was truly quiet. So I sat in the quiet and drank a Coke.
I think that I like quiet because it evokes calmness the in a way nothing else has ever been presented to me. I learned long ago that quiet was natural, an idea that paints images of serenity and peace. I think quiet also allows me to think I am in control. Maybe I am in control, but that has not equipped me for living in Tarime.
Quiet must be created here, the “natural” is far from silent. And I think the spirit of this community thrives in the freedom to make noise, the control of using your own voice, not by eliminating sounds that do not come from you. Imagine the feelings of helplessness, of dependency, of no control, that I faced amidst the constant noise, believing that control and peace were inherently and (more importantly) exclusively, in the quiet. Indeed sound is still very much about control. My roommate would rather lose herself in a repetitive sound of her choosing instead of the distracting random noises of the outside world. In church our individual prayers are spoken aloud, simultaneously but different, together the collective noise seeping out of the rickety sanctuary and covering the noises of the competing churches and street sounds. Control is in joining the cacophony. I think we can all learn from this idea that we should use what we can control, our bodies, or voices, to affect the things around us. We cannot passively wait for the quiet that may never come.
There are many jokes about “African Time,” the heart of the jokes come from a frustration at how long it takes to do things “in Africa.” I would say this is true to my experience so far in Tanzania. But the longer I am here, the more I wonder at the root of this frustrating bit of culture. Perhaps it is not a lack of awareness of time, or a lack of regard for other’s time. Perhaps instead it is a rebellion against sound. Against noise. I spend many mornings drinking uji with the staff of the Emmanuel Center, it is a ritual that says, “we shall do our work, but while there is still mist in the mountains, we will sit here and appreciate it.” It is an attitude that accepts the noise of the world that we cannot control, but in exchange, we demand time. It is a slow-moving battle that does not require weapons, or money, or even food. It just requires a slow walk, a few extra words to your neighbor before you leave for work, the choice to finish the cup of coffee before getting out of bed. In the intangibility of noise, the untouchable sounds from other sources, Tanzanians have figured out how control time in a way very different from the American grasp of time.
So This holy week I will be learning how to pray and contemplate at all times, at unexpected times, at times that are seemingly wrong. I will not look for quiet, but I will accept it if it finds me. I will give thanks for being able to recognize quiet and will pray that it will be just one tool of many that I possess to connect with God and to recognize the holy spirit moving.