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.