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.
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.
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.