A promotional video created by Putney from the footage I shot for them this summer in Tanzania – enjoy!
A promotional video created by Putney from the footage I shot for them this summer in Tanzania – enjoy!
I get off the ferry in Stone Town at sunset, admiring the giant “KARIBU ZANZIBAR” sign on the terminal building. For political reasons I’m highly unclear of, given that Zanzibar is part of Tanzania, I must fill out an immigration form, get my passport stamped, and show my proof of yellow fever vaccination (a disease, mind you, that is not endemic to Tanzania). I get in a cab and tell him where I’m staying, accepting his quote of 5,000tsh, about $3, not knowing I’m getting charged almost double what I should be. We stop at St. Monica’s Hostel less than a kilometer down the road, indicating I also hadn’t realized how small this town is. The hostel is right next to the old slave market, and when I find the stairs to my room it is next to a sign with an arrow reading “slave chambers”.
My accommodation, like Stone Town itself, is a beautiful mix of histories and cultures. The Arab influence is immediately apparent in the architecture, and I realize I’ve never seen anything like it before. I think more than anything, it is this mélange of cultures that stays with me throughout my explorations of the city over the next day. It is an island that, in contrast to the mainland, is almost entirely Muslim, which I realize means I will wake up at 5am with the first call to prayer. Women here are always covered in a hijab or a burka (known here as a bui-bui), often with a beautiful pop of bright colors that gently reminds you that you are in sub-Saharan Africa. The streets of Stone Town remind me of Italy, more than anything else I can think of – though not quite as well maintained. They are narrow, twisted, and promote getting (happily) lost while wanderings through the maze of shops, houses, and markets. Like Italy, no cars fit down these roads, but you need to watch your back (and your front) for Vespas speeding by.
The first place I get lost is Darajani market. I wander through the seemingly endless twists and turns, always finding something new. Zanzibar was a key locale for the spice trade, and continues to produce an array of spices that still play an important role in the economy. I walk by cloves, chilies, cinnamon (three kinds, mind you – some of which were almost as tall as a grown man), paprika, vanilla, cardamom, saffron, black pepper, lemongrass, cumin, mustard, coriander, and nutmeg. The tag in the nutmeg reads “This is better for drinks, cooking, and woman that have given up strong desire for making or to fulfill their men,” and all shopkeepers point out the spice as good for women with a slight twinkle in their eye. Easy, boys.
Within Darajani I soon find the fish market, complete with freshly caught octopus, squid, tuna, dorado, prawns, snapper, and others that I don’t recognize off the bat. I watch as a fish auction begins to take place at one end of the market, before moving towards the opposite end of the building where the meat market is located. Skinned cows hang on hooks and piles of meat adorn the concrete slab counters. Flies are everywhere while butchers prepare orders for customers. As I’m trying to get my bearings, a man starts calling for me to take a picture of him. I turn to find an older man holding up the horns of a cow he has freshly butchered. Playing, he holds them up above his head for his photo op, while some of the animal’s flesh still attached hangs down on his head.
After winding through more rows of vegetables, spices, nuts, fruits, and eggs, I finally come across the chicken market. The men who work here are by far the friendliest of any section of the market I’ve been in before, and I end up staying for a while. They try to disperse the flies covering the chicken carcasses before I take pictures, but it only helps so much. I see a bucket with a variety of bits and pieces I cannot for the life of me place, and when I ask what it is I simply get the answer “soup.” Live chickens walk around, some that will be sold as they are and others that will be chosen live and then butchered on the spot. I watch a man choose his chickens carefully, tossing each one he picks into a large basket with a very small opening on top, just wide enough for one bird. His aim is impressive, and I manage to record a few tosses on film.
Upon parting ways with the poultry, I eventually wander out of Darajani and into alleyways filled with small shops for tourists. “Looking is for free” is repeated over and over again to get you into a store, and I wonder who taught them this phrase that I haven’t heard anywhere else. There are so many shops filled with paintings and jewelry, fabrics and clothing. I immediately know I’m in trouble, shopping-wise. Eventually I stop at a small tea house where I am served mint tea, hiding from the busy streets for a minute while I disappear into my book. I admire the wooden doors left from another era and learn from a passerby, who wants me to pay him to have him walk me around town, that the ones with huge round metal adornments are indicative of Arab culture while those with pointed edges are Indian. Apparently their design back in India was meant to ward off war elephants from breaking in doors, though I haven’t seen many war elephants on the island. Around the next corner, I come upon a group of musicians playing a song that all the children in the area come running over to, bouncing up and down in the street with that beautiful kind of uninhibited dancing that only children (and people at Burning Man) can pull off.
When I continue wandering I come out at the port, where I stop for a late lunch and make use of the free public wifi that covers this part of town. This is a huge indicator to me of how high tourism levels are in this city. I can feel this all around me as well – I haven’t been surrounded by so many wazungu since I left America. It also means that I feel my interactions with locals here are a little less genuine than they have been on the mainland – people are still very nice, but often for a price. I eat my chips and watch an elder Dutch woman trying to buy only fish from the small restaurant I am eating at so that she can feed it to some of the many stray cats wandering around – an exchange which the locals are very confused by. As I watch her take her fish to a group of felines I am completely in awe of both the cultural divide in front of me and of why anyone would think the solution to solving a stray cat issue is to hand feed them. A spay and neuter clinic sure, but this? I am reminded of the many conversations I have had trying to explain how pets are viewed in the developed world, knowing that it really can’t be comprehended here. I return to this spot, known as Forodhani Gardens, in the evening for the nighttime food market that pop up and are the place to be for locals and tourists alike. I get a plate with some chapati and veggies, and happily down a glass of sugarcane juice with ginger and lemongrass while watching all the stray cats feast on people’s leftovers that they haven’t bothered to put in a trash can.
When I get on the daladala in the morning to go to Jambiani, I am thankful a work colleague told me that they’re a little bit different in Zanzibar. Instead of a minibus, the daladalas here are old trucks that have been refitted in the back to hold three benches, one on each side of the bed and one against the driver’s seat. I sit staring at the people across from me, in disbelief every time we take on a new passenger and somehow manage to squeeze them in. Personal space is not a thing here. I laugh as we drive by a man with a baseball hat that reads “I AM A BOSS!” and a shirt saying “I FACEBOOK YOUR MUM.” Every now and then I partake in the passing over of a baby to its mother after she successfully wiggles her way into a seat, reminiscent of a fire line down the daladala bench. Sometimes when a woman has more than one small child another woman without a youngster will take on the other’s in her own lap. I can’t imagine an American woman not being bothered by a stranger taking her baby for her, and get a sense of how family and community structures differ here.
I’m sitting next to man who speaks very good English. He’s 25 and is a capoeira instructor. When he was 12 he found some capoeira videos and self-taught from those until he got noticed enough to be sponsored by an American instructor. He carries his musical instruments on the daladala, heading east to teach a class in Jambiani. I decide to ask him if he wishes Zanzibar were independent, something I have learned is a commonplace here. Indeed, he responds saying that every day he prays for that. He continues on to tell me that Tanzania does nothing for them and doesn’t consult them about anything. He talks about all the oil they have and how they’re not allowed to exploit it – something I can’t say I share his disappointment in. Later he tells me he just a call to go monkey hunting – not for the endemic red colobus monkeys which are protected, but more common ones that harm people’s crops. Knowing the cultural divide is too large to bridge in the space of an hour, I smile politely while he talks about how he loves hunting. When I talk about this interaction with my supervisor back in Dar, he says that Zanzibar will never be independent. He brings up how 80% of their food comes from the mainland and how all their money for infrastructure development comes from the Tanzanian government, essentially seeing it as one big subsidized island. Pointing a finger at me, he also says that America is a big reason Zanzibar will stay part of Tanzania – “the American government doesn’t want to run the chance of having it be an independent Islamic nation with the potential for harboring extremism and terrorist groups,” he says. Now there’s something I never would have considered…
When I return to Stone Town for my last night on the island, I am amazed at how well I can find my way around. That’s the beauty of a small town you do nothing but walk around in for eight hours, I guess. I eagerly head towards an Italian restaurant, thankful for tourists at least in this moment because it means I get real pizza.
It appears, dear readers, that my prolific blogging (well, for me at least) was actually a procrastination technique to avoid my thesis. Since turning in my thesis, I apparently have enjoyed staying away from writing on my computer. However, I’m at a time now where an update is both overdue and necessary for my brain to work through everything that’s going on right now.
I just spent five nights on Zanzibar, which easily knocked its way up into the top five most amazing places I’ve ever seen. I returned to Dar today, straight from the 7am ferry leaving Stone Town to the office (but hey, now I can say I once commuted to work from Zanzibar). To be honest, I wasn’t hugely productive today – both as a result of waking up exhausted/a little sick and the reality of my last week here smacking me in the face. It is now time to consider the trip home… what I need to do before then, who I need to pay, what I need to write, how on earth am I going to fit all of this in my bag, etc. The life I left behind is beckoning, and with it that bittersweet quality that all journeys end with.
For now, however, I want to go back a few days…when the present moment was all that mattered. I met a woman in Jambiani who reminded me of every beautiful thing about solo travel. Her name was Meja, and I found her sitting in the small pools in the sand left at low tide in her village of Jambiani. Located on the southeast coast of Zanzibar, Jambiani is home to not only incredible beaches, but to a seaweed farming industry as well. “Industry” is probably not the right word, however, as it consists of small plots, maybe 20ft x 20ft(ish), that women in the village tend to each day. Putting sharpened sticks in the sand and tying twine between them, they make rows where the seaweed grows in small bunches, much like a head of lettuce. They tie a small piece of seaweed onto the twine with another small piece of rope, and then wait for it to grow to harvesting size, which takes about one month. Once harvested, they take it home to dry and then wait to collect enough to give to locals who make the drive to the markets in Stone Town, about 2hrs away. Once all is said and done, a woman will receive about 400 Tanzanian shillings, or roughly 25 cents, for each kilo of dry seaweed.
I only know all of this because of Meja, who was one of the only women game for chatting and picture-taking. I met her on my first day in Jambiani – a day when I had only taken my iPhone for a camera when I went out exploring. Upon meeting her at her seaweed plot, I knew I had to come back again to shoot her for real (photographically speaking, of course). I asked her in Swahili if she would be in the same spot tomorrow, and was quite smitten when she said yes.
Fast forward 24 hours and I am back with Meja. After talking a little, I ask her to write her name for me so I know how to spell it. She takes one of the sticks used to tie the twine for seaweed that has been left sitting out, and sketches her name in big block letters in the unbelievably white sand. She asks me to do the same, and so there are our names written together in the sand, to be washed away when the tide returns. Although I attempt some Swahili with her, it is clear that her English is very good, so I allow myself to speak in my native tongue and ask her everything I really want to. She shows me how ties the seaweed, then unpacks the bag she has filled with her harvest for the day to show me how much she has and how little it will turn into when it dries. I learn that the Swahili word for “seaweed” is “mwani”, that she is 25 years old, and that she neither has children nor is married – unusual for a woman of her age generally. I complement her English and ask her where she learned to speak so well, to which she replies that she always had it in school. When I ask how long she was in school, her answer of fourteen years makes it a little clearer (statistically speaking, at least) as to why she is unmarried at her age – as a woman’s education level is raised, so is the age at which she marries, generally.
We keep talking, sitting in the ocean with our wet kangas, until she is done with her seaweed tasks for the day. She tells me that she is going to go cook cassava now, and asks if I would like to come. I have not yet been invited into anyone’s home, except for work colleagues, and I eagerly accept the gracious offer. She grabs the bag we emptied (and refilled) earlier while I try to guess just how heavy it is right now while still filled with wet seaweed – African women have a way of making heavy loads look like child’s play, filled with the quiet strength of years upon years of experience. Meja attempts to redo the kanga she is wearing to cover her hair while still carrying the bag. My offer to help gets me one side of the bag, which we carry between us in the middle, at least until she finishes wrapping her hair and decides to take the bag back.
We walk on the sand that will be covered in surprisingly deep water in but a few hours when the tide comes in, then hit the beach and start to wander back through the small stone houses of the village. It is clear from the children’s reaction that not many mzungu wander back this way – usually we are at the beach working on our tans/burns. We arrive at her house and she takes me to where she spreads out her seaweed to dry, showing me the considerably smaller pile of dry seaweed from her harvest a couple days ago. I can’t even imagine how much seaweed it must take to come out with a kilo, and for only 25 cents at that.
Walking through the entrance to her house, I see her sister and mother and am welcomed by them. I am provided with a seat and a very chilled bottle of water, which ticks off a little “refrigerator” box in my head that comes from having read so much about poverty indicators for my internship. I watch Meja’s sister sit on the ground and work on her embroidery while her two-year-old daughter collapses with exhaustion in her mother’s lap. Soon after falling asleep, the young girl starts to pee all over her mom and the mat she is working on. She is still asleep when Meja brings water to clean her, waking only briefly when the cold liquid is poured all over her genitals. She has a look on her face that makes me laugh, knowing that’s not a way I would particularly care to wake up, either.
I am then brought food to eat, and instantly I am both grateful and worried. I’m guessing that as a visitor, and an mzungu one at that, that I’ll be given something particularly nice, which here means meat. I look closer at what is hiding in the red sauce and realize it’s octopus. Grateful at least that it’s not red meat, which I would have to turn down, I accept that this will be one of the handful of moments over my many years as a vegetarian traveller that I allow myself to eat an animal in the name of being culturally appropriate, and look gratefully at my hosts (at the four chunks of cassava provided, too). I rinse my hands with the small bucket of water they’ve provided, knowing that they will be my only eating utensils for this meal. My body instantly knows I am not supposed to be eating this, and I struggle to consume enough to be polite. At the point at which I’ve downed three four-inch legs and almost all of the cassava, I start to gag. I’ve always thought it better to pass on someone’s kind offer of food than to throw it up in their house, and luckily at that moment Meja starts a new project so intriguing that I am able to act as though the only thing preventing me from finishing my meal is that I want to see what she’s doing (which I suppose is partly true).
What Meja has brought out is a contraption I’ve never seen before – a folding chair that opens wide and sits low to the ground, made of two pieces of interlocking wood. The really cool thing is that it has a circular serrated blade protruding from one end, which I have no inkling as to its use. Meja returns with a bowl of coconuts she has split in two, then sits sideways on the chair and starts to grind out the meat using the curved razor. I watch with a huge smile on my face – it had never really occurred to me how people grate coconuts – and explain that this is not something you’d ever see in America. As chickens pop in and out of the house and one chick comes to pick at the empty coconut shells, I ask her how many she has. She and her sister confer and come back saying they have no idea, which is not entirely surprising. Village chickens wander freely during the day (and I mean freely, like, anywhere in the village they want), and, although they come back at night, aren’t often provided with a roost or coop to spend the night in. When I see the goats, I ask her what they’re used for – milk, meat, or market. While she says all three, the most important is selling. I confirm what I’ve been reading in the literature that women are not allowed to sell goats – this is men’s work – and also that women are able to sell chickens without prior approval from a man. Everything has a gender role here.
Once the coconuts have been fully cleaned out and I have explored their goat house, Meja invites me into their kitchen to watch her cook. It’s a stand-alone building about fifteen feet across and seven feet wide. A variety of pots sit on small stoves, fueled only by fire and charcoal. Meja starts to put the coconut into a blender (ticking another wealth indicator box in my head) and mixes it with water, explaining that before they had the blender it would take forever to squeeze out the coconut meat for milk by hand and that the yield was never as great. She takes some of the milk out to her sister, who is cooking rice, and then pours some in the cassava and sweet potatoes she’s cooking. I watch as she pulls some whole spices out from glass jars, grinding them in a makeshift mortar and pestle made out of a stick and half a coconut shell. She holds up one of the seeds and asks “cardamom or cinnamon?” I respond “cardamom,” simply blown away by her English. She throws the spices in the pot and my nose takes a great liking to what’s on the stove. As we talk, I realize I’m having a hard time figuring out if I’m asking questions like a development worker, a journalist, a traveler, or a peer. Story of my life, I guess. I learn that there are ten people living in her house, including her, that her chickens lay eggs in a dark corner of the kitchen, that octopus is eaten on special occasions, and that her sister’s marriage is falling apart – “she got five years,” she says, which sounds to me more like a prison sentence than a marriage anniversary.
As she finishes her work I stand to go, partly not wanting to impose anymore, partly wanting to go take some more pictures on my last day in Jambiani, and partly not wanting to stay long enough that I am offered another meal, kind-hearted as it may be. She says it’s time for her to shower and relax, so I think it’s a good breaking point for both of us. I thank her profusely for inviting me to her home, answering all my various questions, and letting me photograph her all along the way (and for the food, of course). When I ask her if there is any way to get mail in her village, she says no. Guess I’ll just have to come back and personally deliver a photograph… someday.
When I get back to my beach house, all the other guests are laying in the sun, just like I left them. To be fair, I did my share of that as well, but meeting Meja reminded me that the best experiences are always the ones that come from being a traveler and not a tourist – a distinction which we discuss at length with every National Geographic student group. It’s amazing how humbled and grateful you can feel when genuine and unplanned interactions allow you to connect with what’s truly around you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Stepping down, I enter a very dimly lit, very small house. There’s a particularly strong smoky goat smell (if you will), overwhelming my senses. I am being led by Kichua, one of the men of this boma. I have asked to see his newborn baby who, after my visit with my National Geographic Student Expeditions group, was named “Ian” after my co-leader. (Co-leader) Ian has asked me to try and get a picture of (baby) Ian now that I am back in the boma with the Putney Student Travel group. I will, upon leaving the house, learn that babies are not allowed outside for the first three months of their lives (which is why said picture is a little dark and blurry).
The whole house is probably less than 10 feet in width, maybe 15 in length. I am led to the room on my left, where Kichua’s wife holds her child on their bed. Their bed, mind you, being made of various overlapping sticks to make a frame and a stretched cow hide for the mattress equivalent. I get the hand motion invitations to sit down next to his wife, who immediately hands me her child, now three weeks old.
I have never held a baby this young. Hell, I’ve hardly ever held a baby. I’m sure I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve held babies – and it might not even take my whole hand. Two of my cousins have babies but, to my regret, I don’t get to see them very often. And indeed, the practice of giving your baby to a complete stranger whose language you don’t speak is not a common one in the U.S., but that’s where I find myself here at this moment. My face is covered in an ear-to-ear grin. This moment. This moment. I feel like there’s another me floating above in the room, watching all of this in awe. This is why I travel, why I explore.
My attention is completely on the baby (Don’t drop it! Make sure to support its head! Don’t let her see you have no idea what you’re doing!), yet I notice that an animal has started to lick and chew at my knee and the kanga I’m wearing. I guess that it’s a goat, never really giving it a good look. Kichua has commandeered my camera (how fortunate it was already on a tripod facing me and the baby!) and is taking some shots of us. It’s hardly light enough to see with my own eyes in here, but I smile at the camera anyway.
After about five minutes, I give the baby back. I need to get back outside and photograph the students (which is, after all, what I was supposed to be doing all along). I look down and realize that the animal that has been enjoying my kanga/knee is a baby cow – the youngest I have ever seen (hence the mix up with the goat). I think of Billy Crystal and Norman, the baby cow in “City Slickers.”
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!
Zai: No – me!
Me: No – me!
[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).
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.