I Built That. Or rather, I made those clothes dirty.

Yesterday morning I spent a lot of time thinking about the ways in which, deep down, I am really an American. What got me thinking about this, you ask? My laundry. My dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. It went a little something like this (imagine lots of hand gestures and broken Swahili on my part, with big smiles):

Zai (the woman who does cooking and cleaning here): Me!

Me: Me!

Zai: No – me!

Me: No – me!

[Exit Zai]

[Enter Zai and Iku]

Iku: I think we have a misunderstanding. Zai can do your washing for you.

Me: I know, but I’m happy to do it myself and I would feel bad if she had to do it.

Zai via Iku: She doesn’t trust me to do her washing?

Me via Iku: No that’s not it! I trust her; I just like to do my own cleaning.

Zai via Iku: Everyone else will think I’m mean and bad at my job if I don’t clean her clothes

Me (in my head): Ohhhh yeah I hadn’t thought of that

I say that, from where I come from in my culture, I will feel very bad if Zai has to wash my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. Zai says that, from where she comes from in her culture, she will feel very bad if she doesn’t wash my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes. We are at an impasse.

I suggest we wash them together, which seems to go over okay. I wait while someone goes out to purchase “super-soap” for my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes, because apparently what they normally have on hand just won’t cut it.

Zai sets up all the buckets. I call her “Mwalimu Zai” (teacher) in hopes that it will help her feel like I am trying to learn from her (which I am) and not to take over her job. I watch her technique for the first round, knowing full well that she’s much better at hand-washing than I am, even if I have done it many times before. The water in the bucket (with only half of my clothes) starts to look like hot chocolate. We laugh at how dirty it is. I still feel awkward… this poor woman not only has to see all my filth but to clean it up as well. (When viewing the image below, keep in mind that the bucket of brown water is my SECOND round of washing my clothes). Image

And THIS is where I start thinking about myself as an American. There are somecountries and cultures where it honestly doesn’t come up that much. When I’m travelling I’m more interested in adapting to the way of things wherever I am. Except, apparently, when it comes to laundry.

What I realized is that I have been deeply shaped by American individualism, by our do-it-yourself attitude, by the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” take on life. I AM CAPABLE, my spirit screams. I CAN DO ANYTHING (*Note witty reference in title. Note also that this is only witty if you happened to follow the 2012 US Presidential Election Campaign). [Side bar: trying to explain American individualism here is very difficult, particularly when it comes to why it is very common for people to not live anywhere near their families.] 

I’ll admit there’s a more personal note to this as well. In order to put me through school growing up, my parents started to clean whatever school I was at to get a break on tuition. My mother went one step further and start cleaning houses for a living, that being an easier way to make money that utilizing her B.S. in Wildlife Biology. I grew up watching her clean the messes that other people left for her, and it has left me in a place today where I feel highly uncomfortable with other people cleaning up after me. Especially my dirty-stinky-been-out-in-the-bush-for-a-month clothes.

So with those two things working together, I sit there, covered in soap, trying to ignore the fact that every person who walks by is getting a major kick out of watching me help with washing. “Pole” they tell me later – “sorry.” I try to explain that I like it, but I’m sure that makes absolutely no sense. My fingers start painfully stinging. I have rubbed the skin off my delicate academic hands.

A woman walks over with a butcher’s knife held to a chicken’s throat. She is calling for someone else, someone who will be better at killing the chicken. He comes and grabs the bird by the wings, letting gravity do the rest. The bird is absolutely calm, but quite thin for slaughtering I think (says the American in me). He takes the bird about ten feet from where we are washing, lays the bird on the ground and sharpens the knife on the concrete pathway. He is positioned right behind a palm tree, so when I look up a minute later all I see is the now decapitated bird, with its head in his hands.

Another laundry first, I’d say.

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Mzungu

Here, I am no longer “Gemina.” I am “mzungu.” It is a word I hear every day, sometimes more than others, and that has occupied a great deal of space in my mind.

Mzungu. White person.

What intrigues me the most is both how it is used in Swahili and its origins. The word translates not to a color of skin or to any particular ethnic or geographicgroup, but to “one who wanders without purpose.” When I consider what early European exploration and expansion must have looked like to people living in this region, I can understand the roots of this word. What particularly gets me is that this description resonates with me very personally. Ever since I first knew of Everett Ruess and his desert wanderings, “a vagabond for beauty” has been my namesake. From the outside, I feel like I am the embodiment of “one who wanders without purpose,” not only here, but to all those who either have not lived the life or a traveller or who don’t desire to.

There are many practical reasons, “purposes”, if you will, for some of my global vagabonding: research, work, school, etc. Sometimes the purpose is simply the journey, however, which is difficult to explain to people and cultures that do not share this wanderlust gene. I often think about this in terms my personal styling as well. I sport Maasai earrings, Navajo and Zuni rings, a Tibetan Buddhist mala, a Ghanaian bag, pants from Norway, a traditional Portuguese scarf, a sweater from Argentina, a khanga from Mozambique, bracelets I’ve collected from across the world, and then some. These are my stories. These are my journeys. My friends. My memories. My homes. I know that to people who are rooted in one culture, however, I must look incredibly lost and confused. This is where I start to think that I truly am an mzungu to those here, even though the modern context doesn’t necessary refer back to its origins.

On that note, I find it fascinating that the word as it is used today does not really contain anything specifically derogatory in its usage, it’s just that yes, I am a white person and am thus denoted as such. No matter where I have lived or traveled in Africa, I have found that race is talked about much more openly than we have allowed ourselves to feel comfortable with in America. The same openness applies to my African friends who now live in America. It is not racist, derogatory, or negative to include in a statement the color of that person’s skin (depending of course on the context and content of the rest of the sentence). While I have become accustomed to this, and in fact have come to appreciate it, I have a harder time getting used to being defined, in passing, entirely by the color of my skin.

Daily, “mzungu” leaves someone’s mouth and is directed at me. In the village, it was children who saw you walking down the road. “Mzungu! Mzungu! Mzungu!” Here in Dar, where people are more accustomed to seeing white people, it’s generally just in reference to me – “Did the mzungu tell you what she wants for lunch?” Today in the ladies’ bathroom at work, three women who were chatting when I walked in started throwing around “mzungu” when I was in the stall. (*As an aside: using a squat toilet when I have my traveling clothes on vs. when I have fancy work clothes/shoes on is a whole different experience).

My on-site internship mentor is a wonderfully happy man that goes by Dr. Msami. He is the director of surveillance and diagnostics at the Tanzanian Veterinary Laboratory Agency, where I’m interning. On the way home from work today, we discussed how the Western media portrays Africa and, vice versa, perceptions of wazungu (plural for “mzungu”) and Americans based off movies and other media they see. I told him that my students were continually amazed by the fact that people were actually HAPPY in Africa – that they weren’t all starving, engaged in genocide, or otherwise completely in a state of abject horror. When I think about the movies that have been popular in America that are based in Africa, the ones that come to mind are “Blood Diamond,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “The Last King of Scotland.” And yes, recently, “Invictus”, just to throw a little rugby in the mix. (For more on this topic, google Radi-Aid – it’s pretty amazing).

Conversely, however, what people here see of America is that we are all rich. Last night I again got the question: “There is poverty in America???” I think this is also what makes me uncomfortable at times with being “mzungu” and not “Gemina.” I am aware of the associations made here with a person being white, and, I do not necessarily fulfill some of those standards (and do not necessarily encounter people who care to discern the differences among wazungu). While discussing this, Dr. Msami told me that being mzungu means that yes you are stared at, yes you are a novelty, yes you are judged, but that’s it’s always in a positive way. “You are god-like,” he says. That’s a lot to live up to. It also makes it hard to go walk around outside if you’re not in the mood to have your every movement observed, or, as a blonde, your hair touched from time to time (this, and the horrible water pressure, are why I chopped off a good six inches of my locks before coming here). He then explains that anything big or fancy has the Swahili word for “European” added, even if it’s just a nice big herd of local cattle. Amusingly, the word for a big airplane translates to “European bird.”

No matter what, I will always be an mzungu. In both senses of the word, I imagine. I’m also sure it is something that I will continue to ponder as I become more involved in day-to-day life here.

But for the grand finale, a little irony from Dominique, one of our askaris (guards) in Maji ya Chai, our homestay village for the National Geographic Student Expeditions trip: 

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The Long and Bumpy Road

Aside

Well that month flew by.

I’m sitting on my bed at my new home in Dar es Salaam, the Kiota Lodge. Not only do I have amazing zebra print bedding (clashing with the Maasai blanket I added for warmth), but my bed frame extends about four feet up at both the foot and the head and has beautiful wood carvings that frame paintings of peacocks. I’ve been waking up in a tent recently, so this is quite a difference.

Obviously too much has happened in the last month for me to update on everything right now, but I’d like to be able to tell stories here and there from this time. For now, I think I’ll start with the 24-hour journey that got me here from Tarangire National Park.

After finishing my trip with National Geographic Student Expeditions, I joined a Putney Student Travel community service trip as a contract photographer/filmmaker to capture footage of their program. I had a total of eight days with them, half in their village and half on safari. Today is Thursday. Tuesday morning I woke up under the warmth of my sleeping bag and three extra blankets. The sunrise poured in through my window as I packed up, and I made sure to take a few minutes before breakfast to go soak up the view from the “kopje” (the Dutch translates to “little head”, but it means a small rock outcrop in the savannah) at our camping site. We are alone out here, save the Maasai guides who are ever present with their spears. I tell myself to remember this moment, burn it into my mind, so when I’m sitting in endless traffic in Dar I can call upon in.

Tuesday afternoon. We’re on our way to the public campsite in Tarangire National Park. We came in at the other end of the park so getting to our destination is a game drive in itself. I’m in a bit of a predicament, because a resupply vehicle is waiting for me at camp to take me back to Arusha with them, yet the closer it gets to dusk the more animals come out and the more we stop to look at them. We arrive at camp around 5:45pm, and I scramble in a state of hurriedness that I haven’t felt since arriving back in Africa. I need to get out my computer, transfer over the files for what I shot today to the external hard drives I’m leaving with the group leaders to send back. Need to give them all my sound gear. Need to give them my tripod. Need to grab all my things. Need to be out of the park before they lock us in at 6:30pm. I give the group goodbye hugs and hop into an old beat-up Land Rover (the best kind, I might add) and hit the dusty trail.

We zoom along at a speed I don’t think I’ve felt since arriving one month ago. We dodge warthogs, impala, wildebeest, and zebras, but we make it out on time. We hit the highway and encounter a police checkpoint. I know they’re asking about the mzungu in the car (me). Afterwards James, the driver, mentions something about needing to chat with them not to be bribed. I can’t tell if he means in general or if they were asking for a bribe just then. I look out the window at the setting sun. We drive past Lake Manyara and the mountains designating the Great Rift Valley. As we drive, our angle to the mountains keeps changing so the horizon keeps getting lower. Sunset lasts so much longer this way. At times, I even get the sensation of the sun rising again.

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We hit construction and a long bumpy ride begins. A giant moon peeks out over the horizon, caramel-colored and in a halo of clouds. Here and there the moon is framed by the silhouettes of acacia trees, and I realize the only thing more beautiful than an African sunset might be an African moonrise.

We arrive in Arusha at 9pm. I check in to my hotel and find two novelties: wireless and a hot shower. Not only is the water hot, but the pressure is strong enough to allow me to condition my hair for the first time in a month. The simple joys are really all that matter here.

My alarm goes off at 4:33am. I grimace. At 4:50am, my friend’s brother, a taxi driver here in Arusha, calls to tell me he’s outside. He’s 20 minutes early. I finish getting ready and head out into the darkness. At the bus station, three buses are loaded and drive off before mine, the 6:30am departure, arrives. While waiting I sit on a bench with my bags and watch three very newborn kittens, two black and one tabby, play with each other. It’s too much cuteness for so early in the morning.

The bus ride is long and cramped. A large woman with an extreme case of halitosis sits next to me. I turn towards the window. Soon after, the bus attendant comes by and informs me that I am in the wrong seat. She points to seat 22, where I was supposed to be. I see numbers written nowhere, but at this point it’s too much of a hassle for me and the man who ended up in 22 to switch. We wait until the bus stops in Moshi, then the large woman with halitosis tells me to move to 22, so I do.

The in-drive entertainment is spectacularly dreadful. The movie “Python” plays two times in a row. You can still hear the original English but someone has attempted to dub by speaking over it in Swahili. They’ve also provided entirely nonsensical English subtitles such as “hot water rice has been died!” (which, from everything I could gather at this point, was meant to say something along the lines of “Tommy was killed!”). The next movie is “Yankee Zulu.” I pull out my iPod.

I nod in and out of sleep. We have one toilet break at lunch and that is all, so I’m keeping myself pretty dehydrated. I text the colleagues picking me up in Dar at certain points to let them know my whereabouts, as we pass by shops with names like “Nice Pub” and “Friday Pub Everyday is Weekend”. I take a particular liking to the gasoline tankers with “DANGER – INFLAMMABLE” painted on them and a hand-painted sign on a truck that read “VERY LONG ABNORMAL VEHICLE.”

Ten hours after leaving Arusha, we arrive in Dar. My colleagues have been trailing the bus since we got to the city, waiting for it to stop so they can pick me up. I get put into a very nice, very new, Land Rover (issued by the Tanzanian government, I’m guessing) and start the trip to Kiota Lodge. As we get closer to the airport I notice signs with Barack Obama’s face welcoming him to Tanzania, where he just visited earlier this month. Karibu, Obama. Two hours later we’ve driven the short distance between where my bus stopped and the lodge. If traffic is this bad all the time I’m going to need a commuter hobby.

Upon arriving I meet Iku, the woman I’ve been in contact with here at Kiota, and Gabriel, a vet at the agency I’m interning at who specializes in zoonoses, particularly brucellosis and tuberculosis. I haven’t talked about things like this since leaving Boston and my brain perks up. I eat my dinner while we talk, trying to retain some manners while stuffing my face with my first meal since lunch the previous day. Soon after, Gabriel goes home to his family and I allow myself the longest night of sleep I’ve had in… well… that’s a good question. Too long.

And so here I am.