The plane touches down Kilimanjaro airport at approximately 8:30 pm, Tanzania time, ending a 17-hour journey by air from Boston with a connection in Amsterdam. The large jet carries several hundred passengers, half of whom appear to be non-natives. Some are dressed in boots and khaki colored clothes as if they’re about to begin exploring the Serengeti plains the moment they step off the plane. Others are younger, college students or recent graduates—how old am I that I can now peg them as college students?—wearing matching t-shirts identifying them as part of a Duke engineering project or else a Christian youth mission. The early camaraderie among some of these volunteers makes me nervous, and I wonder if any them are working with my organization, Projects Abroad.
I feel very aware of my age. I ponder, as I often do lately, all the people I seem to meet who are my age or younger and yet have traveled far more extensively, existing out of country for months or even years at a time. Some earned their experience through academic merit, others by virtue of their medical skills or professional expertise, or, in the case of the Peace Corps—it seems like every other person I meet lately was in the Peace Corps—by their willingness to dedicate a significant portion of their life, two full years, to extremely simple-living in an alien world, a prospect that has always intrigued me but scared me more.
When I think such people, their exposure resumes sitting in an ink-heavy stack next to my single sheet of mostly white paper, the idea that I must pay for my 90-day “volunteer vacation” seems cheap. I’ve been suppressing these feelings of inadequacy for the last year or two it seems, and though one of my hopes for this trip was to alleviate such insecurities, often it seems to bring them into deeper focus.
As I file behind the next generation of hero travelers stepping down the aluminum staircase onto the tarmac, I’m fighting these feelings again. I try my best to replace them with thoughts like, “Wow, I’m touching Africa right now.” The heavy warmth of night is probably similar to what I find when I visit my parents in Florida but I convince myself it somehow feels different, like Africa. I observe my surroundings out of the corner of my eye, careful not to turn my head since I don’t want to be the only person wearing a stupid expression of wide-eyed wonder the first fucking minute I’m here. Africa. Whatever.
The tiny airport appears to be the only source of light in the world, which falls into total darkness a hundred yards (er, kilometers) in every direction. It seems this world will remain largely a mystery until morning.
We enter a small one-story wood building. A couple of small fans pinned to the ceiling struggle to push the air about. Insects circle and dart beneath the fluorescent lights. I applaud myself for being well-prepared on this front, packing as I have my 0.5 percent permethrin spray to treat clothes and bedding, my 23.0 percent DEET spray and 34.34 percent DEET cream for skin, my 1.2 percent sodium lauryl sulfate spray specifically for fleas, my 2 percent diphenhydramine HCl itch relief gel (in case some critter gets lucky), my portable, repellant-impregnated mosquito net and of course my anti-malarial 100 mg capsules of doxycycline hyclate (in case they get very lucky). Standing behind the mob of tall backpacks crowded around the visa office window, rolling back and forth on my heels, I begin to whistle softly: There ain’t no bugs on me, no there ain’t no bugs on me. There may be bugs on some of you mugs...
After a half hour of slow progress a uniformed man begins processing travelers at the back of the line, collecting a few passports and fees at a time. Eventually he takes my passport along with a few others, but when he returns with receipts and stamped passports for everyone else he looks at me and holds up his hand, saying, “Just wait. Just wait.”
Okay, I reply, and wonder if they’ve discovered something suspicious, which is unlikely since there are no computers on the other side of the glass. Still, I feel a twinge of excitement as I imagine being escorted to a back room, forcefully seated in a metal chair and interrogated in heated Swahili, while a guard silently trains a long black rifle on me from the corner.
Nearly an hour has passed since landing and virtually everyone has obtained their visa, free to move past customs into the luggage area. The same man has now told me twice to “Just wait, just wait,” and the rifle scenario is starting to seem less ludicrous. But finally he emerges bearing my passport, shows me the stamp, and says, “Enjoy Tanzania.” I grin, say “Asante,” and brace myself to discover whether I’ve wasted countless hours listening to Learn Swahili! podcasts.
“Karibu sana,” he replies, smiling back. I assure myself that none of these other whippersnappers bothered to learn a single word of the native tongue.
In the adjacent area I am relieved to find my luggage almost immediately, but struggle to find the promised friendly face holding a Projects Abroad placard. Perhaps they have left without me, which means I must call the office and wait another hour or two for my rescue ride, spending the better part of my first night in Africa sitting in a hut while the kids who have earned their Africa adventure in the proper fashion, at the proper time in their lives, begin wading into their amazing life experiences without me. The rifle and metal chair grow ever more appealing.
I swallow my pride and tell an uniformed person that I’m supposed to be meeting a ride, and he points to another section of the building that, in my defense, is somewhat hidden behind a partial wall. Oops. There are in fact many placards waiting for the newly arrived, and the “Projects Abroad” sign is obvious enough, with its familiar logo printed in color. I wave to the man holding it, who is small and fit, his skin especially dark. “Hujambo,” I venture, more confidently this time, and introduce myself.
“Hello James. Thank you for choosing Projects Abroad. My name is Regan,” he says in a thick accent, shaking my hand in what I will eventually discover is the customary manner for Tanzanians: gripping each other’s knuckles in the familiar Western manner, then angling upward to grip each other’s thumbs, and finally back down returning to the starting grip—one, two, three. I’m slightly distracted by the man’s blinding white smile and the fact that he hasn’t reacted to my Swahili greeting, but I manage to pay attention as he introduces me to a fellow volunteer who has arrived from Holland. His name is difficult to pronounce and I repeat it twice after him.
There’s a second Tanzanian with them who does not introduce himself, nor am I introduced to him. I assume for the time being that he is of little consequence since I’m still repeating the Hollander’s name to myself. I can be polite tomorrow.
The unnamed man loads our bags onto a push cart and wheels it out to the parking lot. The Hollander and I make small talk, trading obvious questions: How long are you staying in Tanzania? Are you volunteering at an orphanage, school, or hospital? Where else have you travelled?
The small city of Arusha where we’ll be living and working is an hour-long car ride from the airport, and the prospect of sharing it with two people who are not native English speakers when I am both tired and preoccupied with the rush of new experience is unsettling. If there is any blame to place in communication difficulties, after all, it is with me, the over-privileged, under-cultured American who needn’t be bothered learning heathen dialects. It’s true, I want to confess, I cruised through four years of high school Italian and can’t speak a word of it, probably because it never really mattered to me in the first place.
But I also took great pains to learn Swedish in college, and not just because my graduation depended on it. I sincerely wanted to make penance for my ignorance. And yet, as my professor astutely observed during her office hours (which had essentially become a weekly appointment with me): “I can tell you’re not very good at learning languages, are you?” I thanked her for recognizing the canyon between my willingness and abilities. Eight years later, in spite of the hundreds of flash cards I’d made and poured over every night to improve my vocabulary, the only phrase I have left in my rusted toolbox is a perfect irony: “Jag kan talar Svenska mycket bra,” (I can speak Swedish very well).
I get into the backseat of the car next to the Hollander. His English is good enough that conversation is easy. I even find his accent and occasionally eccentric grammar to be quite refreshing. I’m just starting to feel relieved when Regan, my Tanzanian host, slips into the backseat to my left, the front passenger seat being occupied by my embarrassing rolling refrigerator of a suitcase which doesn’t fit in the trunk, which leaves me stuck in the middle.
“Actually, um,” I say as the car starts to pull away. “Would you mind if you and I switch seats? I’m deaf in… I can’t hear in my left ear and I’m afraid I’ll have trouble hearing you on this side.”
“Oh,” he says and nods, the smile fading from his eyes but not his mouth. “No problem. No problem.”
I hope he means that it’s no problem because we’re going to stop the car and switch seats, but we continue on past an armed guard to the edge of the parking lot, and turn on to the open road. The driver flicks on his highbeams and we ride without speaking for a while. I sense that the Hollander, who stares straight ahead, understood my request to switch seats and is silently sympathetic.
Eventually Regan offers some facts about sites and attractions in and around Arusha, many of which I know already thanks to the feverish research I have conducted these past few weeks. The Hollander, who is a medical student, explains some of the differences between medical training in Holland and in the States. For a moment I’m unsettled by the fact of his youth, his promising career and that he’ll be “volunteering” professional expertise during his stay, but I remind myself that he too is paying for this experience. Also it’s becoming apparent that I know more Swahili than he does.
Regan seems impressed that I’ve come armed not merely with greetings but things like “You are an Amer—no, I am an American… but… I speak Swahili a little,” and “Excuse me, where is please Arusha?” and of course “Yes, miss,” which is my favorite because the Swahili translation, “Ndiyo, bibi,” sounds a lot like “Indeed, baby.” I explain this to my new friends, who smile politely in return. There may be a lesson here, but I know that I’ll continue sharing my cute and clever observation with people until it receives the appreciation it deserves.
At one point Regan asks me something I cannot make out. “You understand” I say in Swahili, shaking my head. He says nothing and smiles nervously, his disembodied teeth and eyes glowing softly in the near pitch dark of the back seat. “You understand” I repeat, then realize my error. “I mean… shit. I don’t understand. I don’t. I don’t.”
He asks the question again, using more words this time, and I cannot even tell which language he is speaking. My neck is twisted so far around to point my good ear towards him that I’m practically staring straight out of the rear window. The Hollander mercifully rescues me. “You are asking why we decide to come to Tanzania?”
Oh. Figuring some humility would do America good I decide to be my usual disclosing self. I explain that I’ve lately been meeting lots of well-travelled people and was starting to feel I was missing out, and that life was getting routine. I say tell them I want to shake things up. I tell them I want to see what it’s like to live and work in a developing country. I hesitate on the word “developing” and wonder suddenly if this is insulting. Will it seem I’m implying that, because I come from the “developed” world my decision to come to Tanzania is somehow an intentional stepping down, an act of charity, of martyrdom, before the eyes of my friends and family? Especially since it is, to some extent, precisely those things? I am sacrificing money and certain comforts to acquire what I cannot get at home: perspective, cultural awareness, natural wonders, spiritual cleansing, personal development and, most importantly, a real adventure. “Developing” doesn’t mean inferior, not to me.
Still, explaining—even in my own language—this enlightened stance without sounding grotesquely patronizing and pathetic seems impossible, like trying to assure a seasoned, capable man in wheel chair that he’s not handicapped but “special.” Since I can’t seem to say it without wincing I decide I will simply avoid the term in the presence of Tanzanians.
Fearing that I have confirmed a conception of American arrogance, I confess that I also have tremendous difficulty with other languages and am grateful I can go somewhere to receive a culture shock without being dismayed by the language barrier. “I want to be challenged,” I say eagerly, “but not overwhelmed.” Pleased with this new momentum, I add that I wanted to go somewhere that people would be exceptionally patient in communicating with me. To convey utter sincerity when saying this I meditate on my vacation last year to Madrid and Barcelona. Despite preparing with Spanish podcasts, and sympathy of many waiters and museum attendants, and the great number of Spaniards who speak English, by the end of a week even the briefest of verbal engagements exhausted me, my confidence and sense of self-sufficiency so eroded I was reduced exclusively to pointing and silent gesticulations even when I knew enough Spanish to communicate my needs.
I suspect this difficulty stemmed from a comparative disadvantage, since many visitors to Spain, including many Americans, speak the language well. And here I was, a “special” child with a severe language handicap trying to play in the linguistic big leagues. I was setting myself up for frustration and disappointment. Swahili, on the other hand, is a niche language. As a Westerner in East Africa I’m starting on a level playing field, and every advance gives me an edge.
Hujambo? Sijambo. Habari gani? Nzuri sana, asante. Take that Spain.
When we reach Usa, an Arusha suburb, we turn down a narrow dirt road. The car rattles as we crawl over the rocks and bumps. Occasionally a dog trots across our path, glancing at us before passing through the headlight beams into darkness. We illuminate walls and one-story houses made of solid concrete on either side as we pass. After a bumpy five minutes the vehicle pulls up to a gate that looks similar to others we’ve passed, made of painted sheet metal and embedded in the stone wall that protects the house within.
The Hollander gets out and fetches his suitcase as Regan bangs his fist against the metal door. A woman flanked by a small boy and girl answers. “Jambooooo! Karibu sana! You are most welcome!” she bellows. Though this is not my host family, the strength of her greeting encourages me. I hope I will be received the same way.
The little girl pulls one of the Hollander’s bags, a small one, out of the trunk. She pauses at the open car window and pokes her head in to look at me. “Hello,” she says. She is perhaps eight years old. I smile back at her, and open my mouth to reply but I am caught somewhere between English, Swahili, and her pretty face, so nothing comes out. She continues to look at me for a moment, the way children do when they’re glad to have your attention but unsure what to do with it. She returns with the bag to her mother’s side.
I introduce myself to the family and bid good night to the Hollander, who I will see again tomorrow. We return to the main road. After a few miles the dark street springs to life, busy with pedestrians and shops and taxis and pounding music. Most of the structures appear to be unpainted concrete like many of the houses I have seen. Much of the modest, unlit signage is in English but is difficult to read, and the merchandise cluttered in each of the storefronts makes it difficult to determine what exactly they are selling. Here, food and shoe. Next door, bicycle parts and DVD’s. I sniff hard at the air. It smells like any big city neighborhood, mildly sour, thick with people and refuse and car exhaust. Occasionally there is a waft of food cooking that passes too quickly to identify. I see more dogs, strays I think, since they accompany no one in particular.
We turn down another bumpy road, driving only fifty meters before pulling up to another metal gate, set a few meters back from a row of tiny shops and restaurants. Regan tells me this part of the city is called Sakina. I’ll be living only a few steps away from a supermarket and internet café, and can pick up a “dalla dalla” (the famed fleet of boxy, overcrowded vans that constitute Tanzania’s public transportation) from the main road.
My host family is a single mother living with her two younger sons and a boarding nephew each in their early 20’s. The gate is open so Regan leads me in towards the back yard. As we’re waiting at the back door a young man appears silently behind us. I introduce myself and unlocks the door. He and Regan speak softly in Swahili. The inevitable feeling of mild trespass settles over me.
Inside I meet Julianne, my host mother. “Hujambo,” I whisper, afraid to wake anyone sleeping. Regan says good night and reminds me that he will pick me up the next morning at 10:30.
Julianne shows me her home and assures me it is also my home for as long as I am here. Her English is not as good as Regan’s but we understand each other well enough. I am shown the kitchen; there is a plug-in electric stove with two burners for cooking. We walk through a door and up three steps to a raised dining area, then back down three steps to a spacious living room with three small sofas where a second young man is watching television. We exchange waves.
Returning through the kitchen we enter a corridor with a few closed doors on either side. Here is where she sleeps, where her son sleeps, where the other son sleeps, where the volunteer from Germany sleeps. She shows me two bathrooms. One has a sink, tub and shower, and a sitting “Western-style” toilet. In the other there are two separate chambers with doors: one is a tubless shower, the other is (I think) a squatting toilet, which to me resembles a painter’s tray embedded in middle of the floor. A softball-sized hole at the deep end of the tray brims with water. From where I stand this dark portal appears to stretch on forever, straight down into the darkest nether regions, guiding one’s little deposit to the very center of the earth.
She shows me my room. It’s spacious, unadorned. There are two beds, a small table and a nightstand. A rug lies at the center of the concrete floor. Suspended over one of the beds is a bundled mosquito net. I ask her whether another volunteer will eventually be sharing the room with me but she says no, it will just me. She excuses herself and says she will be going to sleep. The two boys I have met are going to bed too. I say that sounds good to me. It’s about 11:30 at night.
I close the door to my room, lusting for the solitude of sleep. I fiddle with the net above my bed, figuring out how to tuck it under the corners of my foam mattress. I turn off the lone bulb dangling from the center of the ceiling, duck under the net and tuck in the last corner, sealing myself in a mesh cocoon. I draw a thin blanket over my legs. A cool, perfect air pours silently over me from the window above. Though I’d prepared myself to bear it, I am filled with gratitude that I will not have to sleep these next three months in extreme heat or cold, that no matter what befalls me day to day in Africa, good or bad or just different, my bed will be comfortable, a familiar sanctuary to which I can retreat when rattled.
I hear the bustle of the main road outside, but it’s distant and uniform enough so as not to jar me as I drift off. Occasionally a lone dog will cry out, setting off a brief and stunning chorus of barking that might very well include every dog in Arusha. Whether they are attempting to be heard over the others, or chanting in unison, I can only guess.
All at once, as rapidly as it started, the barking dies away.
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