Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unajua CHISWEA Way?

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!”

“Yes, 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?”

“War? Vita.”

“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.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Karibu Sana.

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 cafĂ©, 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.

Preface to Updates from Tanzania

I'm attempting to write my accounts of Tanzania in more memoir-ish tone, which may be a mistake since it's somewhat time-consuming. It's overlong, especially for a blog -- the first 2,500 words don't even take me through the first evening, which is probably just as much a testament to my long-windedness as the wealth of experiences and observations packed into the first few days.

If I wait to edit it down I'll be back in the States before I post anything, so I'm just going to put it up. Please forgive the lack of polish, and bear with me as I figure out what works best.

Also, the internet here is abominably slow, so I won't be doing the same amount of formatting and I usually do, for instance, breaking up long pieces into several posts. I'll try to get photos up soon but that's proving difficult as well.

Most importantly, as always, thanks for reading and taking an interest!

Monday, June 7, 2010

Iko wapi Arusha?

As mentioned previously, part of my contingency plan will be to volunteer this summer in Tanzania. I’m using an organization called Projects Abroad, which coordinates volunteers who can finance their own trip to work on any of over 200 different projects in 60 countries – part of the recent "voluntourism" trend, an encouraging if somewhat controversial phenomenon (but more on that later).

I’ll be working on two different projects. For six weeks I’ll serve as an extra pair of hands at a “care center” which is essentially an orphanage, followed by four weeks building water collection and sanitation system. All the Tanzania projects are located in the city of Arusha, a significant factor in how I came to choose Tanzania in the first place.

For one, Arusha is a highland city, and so their climate is quite pleasant, especially this time of year – our summer is their cool, dry season. Also, Arusha happens to be a great launch pad for doing fun touristy things in my final two weeks, in particular going on safari through Serengeti national park and possibly climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. From here I can even take a short flight out to visit the island province of Zanzibar, a small tropical paradise that is also perhaps the richest concentration of Tanzanian culture and history one can find, or a certain slice of it, anyway.

As far as why I chose Africa, I’m not entirely sure, but I think I have this sense that Africa will provide the greatest culture shock without killing my resolve to absorb and adapt to it. I am absolutely seeking stimulation first and foremost on this trip, and I can’t do that without challenging myself. But a recent vacation to Spain taught me that even a week of fighting a language barrier can be overwhelming and draining. English is spoken widely (to varying degrees) in Tanzanian cities, and my understanding is that Tanzanian citizens are often very eager to practice their English in conversation with a native speaker.

What’s more, Tanzanians are highly receptive to even modest efforts to learn Swahili, the national language—can you imagine if foreigners struggling through their first words of English were greeted with the same level of enthusiasm in America?

I know from past experience that learning languages is especially difficult for me, and these are exactly the optimal conditions I may need to finally pick a language up that will actually stick with me for a while and not have it be a grueling, unpleasant experience. Words in Swahili are almost always spelled as they sound, and basic rules of pronunciation and grammar are highly consistent, with very few exceptions to confuse things. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to get a head start by listening to language-learning podcasts, and I’ve actually found it fun. Very promising!