At CHISWEA, my tolerance for conversational impasse grows quickly.
“Uhuru,” Dickson says. His face contorts the way it does when he gets stuck, and he looks away, sucking air through his teeth. “In English…”
We are crouching on the ground outside, in the alley between the boys’ dorm and the common room. At our feet are the Tanzanian and American flags, rendered in dirt. Shapes within the rectangles are labeled their appropriate colors. Dickson drew the flag for America, correctly remembering there are thirteen red and white stripes, but for simplicity’s sake we settled on drawing six stars instead of fifty. I drew the Tanzanian flag, which is divided into two right triangles, green and blue, by a diagonal band made of one thick black stripe and two thin yellow stripes.
Dickson is now trying to tell me what one of the colors on the Tanzanian flag represents. “Uhuru,” he repeats, and makes a tsk tsk tsk sound. He once told a fellow volunteer that he is fourteen years old but this seems incorrect. For one thing, he has the physique of an eleven-year old. And his eyes, set wide and dipping at the outer corners, belong to a person far older, someone who has seen a lot. Whatever Dickson has seen in his short lifetime has left a trace of exhaustion in his face.
Dickson strikes me as the most introspective of all the children I have met at CHISWEA. When we’re together in silence or when I observe him from a distance, I often wonder what he’s thinking.
Usually, when I am talking to one of these boys and encounter this kind of stumbling block, he or I will throw in the towel if several repetitions or rewordings fail to yield that eureka moment—that smile and wide-eyed “A-ahhh.” Once I realize that reaching an understanding is hopeless, at least in this particular instance, I utter a slightly embarrassed “Sowa sowa,” which translates to “Okay, okay,” but really means “Sorry, this ain’t happening.” They in turn give me a reassuring fist bump and walk away.
These failures to understand each other are indeed sowa sowa, because we have our connecting moments. At first, it’s just me finding a flat spot on their bony backs to give them a hard pat, or winking at them and saying “visuri sana” (very good) when a spontaneous little performance grabs my attention. It takes only a few days to broaden my repertoire with most of them. I’m amazed to find how much can be communicated through creative use of a few basic words from plucked from two languages plus an infinite well of sounds, drawings and gesticulations.
Of course, none of this is possible without the freedom to fail, to say “Si fahamu” (I don’t understand) two or three, or even five times, and “Sowa sowa,” when I’m ready to give up. I can recall several social occasions where I found myself conversing with a partner who spoke imperfect English. When I unwittingly stumble into such a dialogue, I naturally assume it is my duty to politely entertain the poor soul who is now ruining my night, no matter how awkward, and feign interest in a conversation that progresses at a half a mile-per-hour. My guilt over participating in such a ruse is compounded by feeble efforts to suppress, as long as possible, the need to excuse myself and escape, escape, escape: “I’m just… going to find my other mink at the barrrithroom. Nice meeting you!”
Obviously there are a million things wrong with this mindset, but if I take one trick away from my time in Tanzania, I hope it is this: Whenever I encounter a language barrier amid friendly conversation, I should approach that conversation as if it were a puzzle or a game, something where I score points for each idea conveyed successfully, where the learning curve is steep and progress builds upon itself and the scores get bigger and bigger. If at some point I must grimace and say, “Sorry I just don’t understand,” or “Sowa sowa,” or use some gesture to convey finality (if they don’t beat me to it, that is), then I simply start a new game.
I sense the sowa-sowa moment approaching as Dickson searches for the English word that eludes him, and I feel bad—he thinks it important otherwise he’d have dropped it already—but at length he raises his arms to cradle an imaginary object, something heavy and lengthy. The object begins to kick.
“Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh!” he says as his body vibrates.
A machine gun. In my mind I see him firing his gun from a hilltop, raining bullets upon some military jungle village, Rambo-style. It makes me smile.
Dickson lowers his gun and begins waving his arms, “No. No.”
“No war,” I say happily. “Peace!”
(Actually, “uhuru” means “freedom,” but close enough).
The significance now makes sense. Except for a brief invasion of Uganda in 1979, meant to check the aggression of Idi Amin, Tanzania has never been at war, with other nations or with itself. This makes the country an important source of stability in East Africa, not to mention a source of pride among Tanzanians.
My tolerance for conversational impasse has definitely increased; so has my addiction to progress.
“Uhuru,” I repeat. “How do you say war in Kiswahili?”
“Vita. Uhuru. Vita.” In my head I search for ways to push the conversation along. “In America,” I say, holding up two fingers, “we have vita bili.”
I can see in Dickson’s face that this is news. I pick up the stick we used to draw our flags in the dirt and begin to draw a world map. I capture North America well, but from South America onward my continental outlines get progressively worse.
Dickson must think so too because he waves for me to stop and beckons that I follow him.
In the CHISWEA office he asks for something in Swahili and is handed a large, rolled up map which we unfurl on a table in the common room. I point out Afghanistan and Iraq. It’s not long before a large group of boys have gathered around us. Together we begin locating home countries for other CHISWEA volunteers, past and present.
CHISWEA (Children of the Street Welfare Association) is home to over seventy boys and girls aged between 7 and 21 years. They are not all orphans but, as the name implies, they all came directly from “life on the street”—that is to say, they were not attending school, either have no family home or choose not to live there, and survive through the generosity of strangers, panhandling, petty scams and theft, and probably even less savory means. Time that isn’t spent hustling is spent just hanging out, perhaps drunk, or high on pot or glue fumes.
Coming to live at CHISWEA is voluntary, and doesn’t suit the taste of every street child, who at the very least enjoys a near complete freedom from authority. Residents must adhere to rules and adopt certain responsibilities in exchange for benefits like regular meals, a roof, and a de facto family. The kids speak varying degrees of English, and those who (a) so choose and (b) can afford it (usually because someone sponsors them) will attend school for part of the day, while others are content to just hang out in and around the compound. Most of the girls are also at school during the day, though their instruction is more vocational (cooking, sewing, etc.). They also tend to stay inside their dorm after school lets out, so I don’t see as much of them as I do the boys.
The facility is cordoned by a ten foot wall made of concrete and iron fencing, though the door at the main gate is almost always open during the day and the kids come and go as they please. Within the walls are three main buildings: the boys’ and girls’ dorms, where they sleep barracks-style in closely packed bunks, and the common room where the kids do everything from eat their meals, to play games, practice tae kwon do, draw, and (sporadically) have English lessons in a space not much bigger than a typical American high school classroom. Sectioned by the girls’ dorm, the common room, and the northeast corner of the wall is a dirt courtyard where I’ll often find residents doing laundry in buckets or fetching water out of the well.
Outside the compound, across the main road (and I’ll define “main road” more specifically in a moment) lies “The Stadium,” an empty dirt lot nestled between two cinderblock skeletons—unfinished construction projects that were probably intended to house shops and domiciles but for now remain abandoned. When the weather is dry the boys from CHISWEA and kids from the neighborhood come here to play soccer (which if you’ll recall is “football” to the rest of the world). Soccer matches and related games often make up the larger part of their day.
The facility is located on a road that, lacking any formal name I’m aware of, I have come to call CHISWEA Way. The road begins where most maps of Arusha end, and to walk it for the first time as a Westerner who has never before set foot in the developing world is, in a word, fascinating. There is no pavement, only dirt and stones. Even a brief, misting rain in the morning can leave large pockets of slick mud for a goof like me to leap over and sidestep when the occasional car or moped comes bumbling along. As I progress down this street the shops get smaller, and smaller, until most are mere concrete cubicles inside which you may get your hair cut, purchase shirts, buy some produce, or have a beer. I pass small movie huts where a half dozen people may sit on the dirt floor and watch American films dubbed poorly (but live) in Swahili. The windows and doors to these oft unmarked huts are sealed, but the over-amplified and distorted narrator, frantically yelling over explosions and screams of agony, is a dead giveaway. Grimacing old men with stringy biceps pull two-wheeled carts piled high with shoes or rods of sugarcane. Pairs of chatting women stroll by with heaping bundles balanced effortlessly upon their head. Stray dogs nose around in small piles of burnt refuse, or curl up in the dirt to nap. A family of goats trudge the side of the road looking for the rare sprout of grass. On some days I see a cow, or perhaps a trio of donkeys. And the chickens—my God, the fucking chickens—they’re everywhere, bawking and bobbing across the road in front of me, pecking with precision through trash after the clumsier dogs lose interest, sitting like water balloons in small blocks of shade. Incidentally, chickens are a valued source of protein in these parts, and it is hard to find a well-to-do house in Arusha that doesn’t keep a pen outside stocked with the cluckers, so perhaps the burgeoning population found along CHISWEA Way shouldn’t surprise me. But these chickens roam so freely it seems impossible they would have an owner. Perhaps these Tanzanians can recognize their own chickens better than Westerners can recognize their own pet in a park full of dogs—“Ah, there you are Eggward!”—but that seems unlikely, given the limited attachment one can hope to develop with a creature who’s head you plan to lop off.
There are people at every doorstep, cooking cassava or maize on tiny hibachis, dumping a water bucket onto the street, sitting in a chair in the shade looking at the passers-by. Looking at me. It seems each one of them takes specific notice; for some it’s merely a glance, while others may fix their gaze on me unabashed for seconds at a time, falling in their walk to a near dead stop and turning around so as not to lose sight. This kind of celebrity turns out to be unsettling only for the first day or two. After a week in Arusha it barely even registers how much I stand out. Every few minutes a group of small children will squeal as I pass, waving and shouting “Good morning!” regardless of the time of day, or more commonly, “Mzungu! Mzungu-uuuu!” Given there is a wide variety of customary Swahili greetings, and no one in particular stands out as the most popular, I think it’s fair to say that “Mzungu,” meaning European or white person, is the most common word a Mzungu will hear in Arusha. On CHISWEA Way I am far from the city proper, where Mzungus (the correct plural form is “Wazungu” but here’s a rare instance where I prefer the bastardized Western version) appear with greater frequency, but for the people living here, especially those that tend to stay close to home, I may be the only white person they see all day.
After a mile the road opens up a bit, and there’s more breathing space between structures, more room for some of them to grow. Occasionally I pass a small school, church or mosque set behind the standard gated wall, and farm patches big enough for a perhaps a hundred maize stalks, or a few avocado and mango trees scattered among bean plants. Though the street is never intersected by another road I can now see that much activity exists beyond the street front shops and houses. Rectangular mud huts, growing larger, stand close together and form narrow alleys where I see children darting back and forth, disappearing around corners and behind hanging laundry.
Before long I am approaching the cinderblock skeletons around “The Stadium.” Mild anticipation tickles me as the dirt lot comes into view, and I wonder whether I’ll see a scatter of familiar faces on slender bodies kicking the ball around. If I do, they will each pause to raise an arm in greeting before returning to their game. They never look delighted or excited to see me. Rather, their wave or smile upon my arrival conveys a certain kind of peer respect, the casual sort of gratitude you feel when you smile at a friend you see every week or more, and have for years. I prefer this. I know these kids need more affection and love than they would ever let on, but there’s no way they’re going to betray that need, least of all to me, who they’ve only known a few days and who will certainly leave before long. These kids are nothing if not self-sufficient, and it suits me well, because I’m still not comfortable being the center, or anywhere near the center, of anyone’s world. If I show up, they appreciate my presence. If I don’t appear, they may take notice, perhaps even be a little disappointed, but their life will go on the way it has without skipping a beat. I guess I’m just grateful they don’t treat me like shit, that even though we’re still feeling each other out they are willing, even happy, to share some of their world with me.
It is here, on this dirt lot where I encountered the most beautiful and mesmerizing thing I have so far seen in Africa. It’s my second day at the center and I am playing soccer with twenty boys, some from CHISWEA and some just from the neighborhood. My fellow volunteers look on, chatting with some younger tots on the sidelines, while I skid back and forth in the dirt and occasionally gasp for air, lamenting how much I took my boundless boyhood energy for granted. It’s obvious I suck but none of them seem to mind. Occasionally I earn my keep by throwing out a long leg on defense, stripping the ball from an agile ten-year old before he can take a shot. CHISWEA has one soccer ball but it’s inaccessible at the moment, so we play with a homemade substitute—a spherical web of twine stuffed tight with plastic shopping bags. It’s smaller than a soccer ball but the weight and bounce are astonishingly comparable; a few of the boys have become very adept at making these. Some of them own sneakers but on most days open-toed is preferred. Mismatching pairs and broken straps are common, and all are coated in a film of dried mud. To kick the ball is to lose your footwear, and at any given moment I can spot at least two players running to retrieve an errant flip-flop.
Tempers never flare. Not one argument develops. This is a friendly game, and if they’re keeping score I can’t tell. But for sure they play with intensity, and in every minute I observe a highlight reel-worthy lunge that I’m certain will result in injury. But no bones break—I don’t think any of these kids even scrapes a knee. Where I come from, virtually everyone subscribes to the notion that we as adults must constantly save kids from themselves, that an inevitable chaos ensues when a large group of children have no supervision. But here there appears to be a method beneath the chaos, a guiding force even, that makes it impossible for these children to hurt each other as they release their brimming energy stores, strengthen bonds of brotherhood and express themselves through this bony athletic dance.
As additional players and onlookers begin to gravitate towards us, I notice a little girl approaching from up the road. She is no more than four or five, and has a scarf around her head. As she draws closer, I see that she has an infant wrapped securely to her back. She smiles softly at the activity ahead of her, and when she reaches the corner of the lot she pauses to observe it all. A few of the tots equal to her in size sidle up to her and say a few words. I cannot tell if she knows them or says anything back. I am trying to keep at least some of my attention on the game but I can’t stop looking at her. Is the baby her sibling? Where are her parents? Does she have any? Where is she going? Coming from? For a moment I think how tragic it is that a small child can be burdened with responsibility so early in life, that somehow it steals her innocence away… but who am I to make such a judgment? Me, who has been in this strange country for only a few days, who doesn’t know the first thing about what it means to be a child in Tanzania, the pains and the joys that accompany it.
In looking at her I have slowed down long enough to register how exhausted I am. I drift off to the sideline and lean on my knees to catch my breath. The little girl begins to cut diagonally across the lot, still bearing the same expression of joyful wonder on her face. She seems silently delighted by what she sees, or at least some aspect of it, as if she were wandering through a butterfly garden. I grow nervous when I see that the game has not paused for her passing, nor does anyone take it upon themselves to usher her out of harm’s way. They simply play around her. I am about to step in myself but am hesitant, recalling that I am a visitor here, that I probably understand little and should just let people do what they usually do, the things they did before I got here and what they will continue to do after I leave. Just let it be.
As if to further test my resolve, she stops again, almost in the very center of the lot. She turns a bit, facing toward the road. I am nearly breathless. I feel a sense of urgency, like I am witnessing some magnificent spectacle that must be shared before it vanishes, or before I burst, or something. No one else, not even the other volunteers, seems to take special notice. Do they even see her? My concern for the girl’s safety is still present, but distant now, out of my hands, as if she were on a movie screen. I hope that she will look at me just once, that we might share a moment, but her gaze remains panoramic, transfixed by everything. And there she stood, she with her charge, letting her hand float upward until several of her fingers rested inside her mouth, charmed and charming amid a flurry of shouts and dust and broken sandals. After a few minutes she finally continued onward, crossing the field with gentle little steps and disappearing into the narrow space between two houses.
As the days of my Arusha stint tick by and I settle into a comfortable routine at CHISWEA, remembering a few more names each day, arm wrestling, drawing in dirt, playing cards, sharing a lunch of rice and beans, I keep my eyes out for her, wondering whether I will see her again. I hope that I will, and by equal measure hope that I won’t, that she is type of thing one sees once in a lifetime, becoming grander, more inspiring, with each recall.
The Savior Complex
1 month ago