T’was the Night Before Eid…

I arrive at 6:15pm to see if there’s anything I can do to help set up for dinner. I am wearing long, loose pants and a jacket over my shirt that comes down to my elbows. I am told I must go change into a skirt and cover my hair. I walk back to my room, grabbing my nicest kitenge to wrap around my waist. I change into a shirt that covers more of my chest, but leaves my lower arm still exposed. To top things off, I pull out the traditional Portuguese scarf I brought with me (though I’m not entirely sure why, with as warm as temperatures are here) and wrap it around my head. I head back to the main house and again I am not permitted to enter – my arms are still showing and the scarf around my head is not long enough to hide them under. Taking no chances this time, I return to my room and put on a long-sleeve shirt that covers everything and a sarong my old dance teacher gave me from Senegal that wraps nicely around my head. This time I am allowed inside.

The children have already arrived and are sitting patiently on the floor, where the meal has been set up per tradition. It is the last night of Ramadan – this is the last meal to break the month of fasting before the two-day celebration of Eid. I am new to all of this, but am trying to learn as much as I can. I am told to sit next to the children – children who have been invited from a nearby orphanage to join in this meal. For Muslims who are better off, this is an important time to give to those who are less so. I am feeling a little flustered when I am instructed to uncover the food and serve the children. What if I do it wrong??? I already messed up my outfit several times and I don’t want to accidentally commit some horrible taboo of serving etiquette. But of course, I proceed anyway. I hear what I imagine the thoughts of the children must be in my head “who is this mzungu here serving us food?” I notice that all of the men and boys are in the other room, and it occurs to me that this may be the first time in my life I have been separated by gender for something other than bathrooms and sports teams.

They are all beautiful young girls that I am serving food to, dressed to the nines with whatever they had. One of them is wearing what I imagine has to be an old Halloween costume, based on the fabric and significant bling factor of fake jewels on the cuffs. I am sweating underneath all this clothing – only my face, hands, and feet are exposed. My body is not used to this. We begin to eat together, me trying hard to master eating without utensils or the use of both hands – food is eaten with the right hand. I watch the girls and women nearby and there appears to be some technique of rolling food into small pellets to make it easier not to drop everywhere. I take a sip of the porridge that is the first thing to be consumed when breaking fast at the end of each day of Ramadan – it is made from maize and commonly served with sugar. I have had it three times to date, and I think what it most reminds me of is pancake batter. I try to ask some of the girls their name, but no one is really speaking in either room, making conversation seem difficult or inappropriate while eating. So I just smile.


The lovely gaggle of girls I was fortunate enough to share in the celebrations with on this Eid eve. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I am told to keep giving them food – to pile it on, make them eat and eat and eat. There is fish, chicken, potatoes, peas, cassava, rice, noodles, porridge, chapati, and about five different kinds of fruit. Some of them do better than others with the mountains of food they’re amassing on their plates. After dinner, I get to learn their names and I am introduced to the group. As soon as word gets out that I’m American, one of the girls looks at me, throws me a huge grin, and says: “Obama!!!!” I laugh and say “ndeyo,” “yes.”

We gather in the main room for the evening’s prayers – purported to be the strongest day of the year for them – with the women sitting in a back corner. I notice that the way people are holding their hands is similar to ways I’ve seen some Buddhists holding them during meditation – open palms to the sky. I am distracted from the prayers, being led by the host’s husband, by the giggling of the young girls who have excused themselves to go to the bathroom, which is just to my left. Earlier one of them had stood up in the middle of the meal and started bouncing around with a look of anguish on her face… some things need no translation to be understood.


Everyone gathers in the living room for after-dinner prayers – separated by gender, of course. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

After the prayers finish the children are given shoulder bags from ShopRite as a gift. We gather to take a couple pictures and I have to work my best powers of distraction to get a shot of the girls actually smiling – something they did readily until the camera got between us. They then continue home, thanking us for the meal. I thank them in return, then return to my room to wash the cassava out from under my fingernails and take off some of my suffocating clothing.

I walk down to the bar where I’m staying to pay for something I’d had earlier in the day. I am greeted by Kichupi (see my last post), who is wearing only his zebra-print briefs. I tell him I like his chupi and he laughs, hugging me and giving me two kisses – one on each side of my neck. Seeing this, DJ Samaki (“DJ Fish” – the guy who does music here and is another new friend) takes a break from his pool game to jokingly thrust the cue towards Kichupi “Hey! She’s my sister!” he says.

And this is the thing about Tanzania… I am constantly moving between worlds and cultures with the actual geographical distance between them being nil. It’s really an incredible thing.

City Living

I sit down in the front seat of Dr. Shirima’s fancy new car and exchange morning greetings – “Habari za asubuhi?? Nzuri sana, asante” – before my eyes inevitably focus on the bottle of yellow liquid on the dashboard that reads “Pure House” on the first line and “Car Fragrance” on the second. Gets me every time. We wind through the municipalities of Ilala and Temeke on our way in to the office, my eyes constantly focused on all that’s happening on the streets. There is so much color, so much life, so much activity. Motorcycles, apparently having become a huge hit since my last stint in East Africa, weave in and out of the cars and particularly enjoy the middle route between the cars in each lane. One of them zips by with a mud flap that reads “GROLY TO GOD.” They all wear helmets, but their undone buckles flap behind them in the wind. “Better than nothing?” I wonder to myself.

Stopped in traffic, I look at all the people passing by the windows of cars trying to sell almost everything under the sun – gum, soda, water, snacks, inflatable soccer balls and flamingoes, maps of Tanzania, a poster of the English alphabet, fruit, newspapers, tarps…. I pause when I see the man with the tarps. “Who would need a tarp when they’re sitting in traffic?” I think to myself. About thirty seconds later, Dr. Shirima honks his horn and signals to the man with the tarps – “Just what I’ve been looking for,” he says in all seriousness. Touché, tarp man, touché.

Men on bicycles line the outside of the roads, some transporting goods and some not. I am most impressed by those carrying furniture (including an entire sofa) and those bringing eggs to sell in the city. They carry what looks like about 48 eggs per carton, with layers stacked so high I’ve seen them rise above the height of the person transporting them. This would not be a good job for me, I think, picturing myself in a pile of hundreds of broken eggs on the side of the road. Dr. Shirima explains that there’s a huge poultry farm just outside the city where they bike in from every morning. I wonder if this is the most efficient way, but then look around at how much faster bikes can move in this traffic and imagine that it may indeed be faster.

A job I definitely lack the coordination to do. Carrying eggs through a city of six million on a bike is an impressive feat. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

A job I definitely lack the coordination to do. Carrying eggs through a city of six million on a bike is an impressive feat. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

We turn down a side road to take a short cut, passing by a corner where men sit and smash big rocks into smaller rocks all day in order to sell them for building material. I am reminded of the other day when Dr. Shirima and I stopped at a shopping center and there were three people working each gate to the parking lot. How many jobs in the developed world have been replaced by machines?

Passing through the gate at the Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Development, things around me become quiet. But my mind keeps thinking about the city. I’ve been living in Dar for two weeks now, and every day I reflect on how different life is here than what I experienced in the Arusha region. One of the draws to my internship was that I would finally get to experience a major African metropolis – up until now, my time in big cities here has been short but sweet – a day in Windhoek, two in Maputo, maybe three in Johannesburg and Durban. I spent about three weeks in Cape Town, but it’s hard to really put Cape Town in the same category… My mind starts to wander…

My second night here I am taken down to the bar at the place I’m staying by the niece of the woman who owns it. She is a year younger than me, a primary school teacher on her holiday break right now. She, along with most of the other women I see, is wearing pants. Normally, this would not strike me as odd, but I have not seen a woman in pants since I arrived in Tanzania (save my safari guide, but that’s really a practical decision). Women do not wear pants in the villages – when some of my female students wore pants in the villages we were asked why they were wearing men’s clothes. Here at the bar, a few other women walk past with short, skin-tight dresses. I have not seen legs or cleavage since I arrived, either. I am also told that colorful patterned kangas I so adore are not in style in the city – they’re “something your Aunt Mary wears.” That being said, I see women in kangas every day here, just not among the more modern crowd that frequents this bar. She asks a friend for a cigarette and tells me that her mother doesn’t know she smokes. In the city, if you smoke and you’re female it’s a sign that you’re a prostitute. She likens it to what she’s seen in movies about wigs being a sign that you’re a prostitute in America. It’s a combination of the dress and the location, I say, realizing that most of what I know is probably from the media, too.

I look over and see a couple making out. “!!!!!!” is how my brain responds. I am not only scanning my memory to think if I have EVER seen this amount of PDA anywhere in Africa (again, note my lack of experience in big cities) but also remembering a conversation I had with the Maasai not too long ago that made me think “!!!!!!” as well. In that instance, I was being told that men and women never kiss. Kissing is for a parent to their child, they said, but never between a husband and wife. Up until this moment, it had never even occurred to me that kissing your partner was not simply a part of being human. This sends me into a swirl of questions about whether or not kissing is a biological human impulse and how we express love in different cultures and who were the first humans to kiss and why. I have gone from “no kissing” to public displays of kissing in this country in but a few short weeks. How fabulous.

Our campfire in Maasai land where students and Maasai discuss the vast differences between our cultures. Yes, including kissing. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Our campfire in Maasai land where students and Maasai discuss the vast differences between our cultures. Yes, including kissing. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

I have been noticing a man in his underwear and nothing else – small, tight grey briefs. I am also thinking how different this is from village life when my new friend tells me that he is gay. These words come out of her mouth with a mixture of acceptance and disgust, which is a hard line to walk. Homosexuality is not just frowned upon, but illegal many places in Africa (save South Africa where even gay marriage is legal – once you come out of apartheid saying everyone is equal I guess it’s hard to keep institutionalizing discrimination in any form, even though most South Africans are still quite homophobic). Her face, and her later interactions with him, makes me wonder about the role that urban youth in Africa may play in changing this situation. I remember one of Putney students, a girl from NYC, running up to the leaders in joy after seeing two men holding hands – “I saw a gay couple!!!!” she exclaimed. “No you didn’t,” we all reply in unison, crushing her dreams just a little. Here, it is very normal for people of the same sex to hold hands. Two men holding hands is a sign of friendship and nothing more, because the “more” that we speak of does not exist – at least not on the outside. Soon enough, grey underwear guy comes over and introduces himself. Although I learn his real name, I am told that no one would know him by that name because he is called “kichupi” – little underwear. I smile. I need no explanation…


“Ok,” I say, my mind finally coming back to the office after its meanderings through city life. Time to get to work. I know I have the ride home to continue to soak it all in.

Selling goods in the endless line of traffic in Dar es Salaam. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.

Selling goods in the endless line of traffic in Dar es Salaam. Photo by Gemina Garland-Lewis.